The best words to describe Northern Light, the long-delayed album from pianist Scott Healy and guitarist Glenn Alexander are mellow and laid-back. Originally recorded back in 1991 in an unedited session along with Kermit Driscoll on bass and Jeff Hirshfield on drums, the master tapes were left sitting forgotten in a closet as Healy and Alexander went on to other things. Then, as Alexander tells it in Bill Milkowski’s liner notes, he found a cassette of the session and played it for his students at Sarah Lawrence College where he runs the jazz program and they “sort of went nuts on it.” He got in touch with Healy and reminded him of the session. Healy listened, loved it, and the rest as they say is history.
The session consists of half a dozen original compositions, three each by Healy and Alexander and runs for just under 40 minutes. Healy credits the rhythm section for making the session sound so good. “They’re able to float with you,” he says. “That kind of playing inspires your confidence, makes you relax a little bit and makes you further able to get even more expressive.” This willingness to push beyond rigid rhythms and let the music breathe is evident from the opening piece, Healy’s “Spiral,” as well as from Alexander’s “To the Point” and “Chimes.” They have an intuitive feel for one another. Healy describes Hirshfield’s collaborative sensitivity on “Chimes” as an example: “[H]e just stops playing and listens, and then he hits it. He finishes my phrases for me. It’s really remarkable.”
This is not an album that relies on elaborate production. It is the music that is front and center. Alexander’s guitar solos are intensely thoughtful and Healy’s work on piano and synthesizer are both intricate and subtle. They play together with an artful complexity that often masquerades as understated facility. Compare their version of Alexander’s “Christmas Day” on the new album with an earlier slick fusion version on his ’93 album Rainbow’s Revenge, and the dynamism of the earlier version is clear.
Healy’s “November,” which he has previously recorded with a larger ensemble in a more structured arrangement and the title track round out what is a very interesting album with a lot of excellent music, much of it providing four very talented jazz musicians the opportunity to listen to each other and react to what they hear. It is a shame that it had been sitting in a closet all these years.