EEA is constructed of three members from the Program for Improvisational Music at the University of Nevada-Reno. Saxophonist Peter Epstein earned his Bachelor’s degree at the California Institute of the Arts and his Master’s degree was earned where he currently teaches. During his professional career he has worked with artists like Bobby Previte, Brad Shepik, Ralph Alessi, Michael Cain, Ravi Coltrane, Mike Stern and Jim Black, to name a few. Trumpeter Larry Engstrom is director of the University of Nevada Reno Jazz Festival, and earned his degrees from California State University-Fresno and the University of North Texas. Pianist David Ake earned his degrees from UCLA, the University of Miami and The California Institute of the Arts.
The Dark is the debut of these three musicians playing together as an ensemble. The concept of their music is to do original compositions, free-jazz collective improvisations or chestnuts from the jazz canon overlooked by modern artists. For the most part, the musicians make music that is dark toned and, at times, very brooding. Eschewing bop or hard-bop influences the CD features four Ake originals. His "Keystone" features a floating ostinato in the piano while Epstein and Engstrom play unison lines that open up to improvisations that are oriented towards selective note choices instead of displays of technical prowess. The mid-tempo floating background creates a perfect foil and cushion for each of the horn players to craft lines that would be called, in overused modern parlance, introspective.This above description aptly conveys the tone and gravity of the entire disc. Even their take on Ellington’s "African Flower" and Egberto Gismonti’s "Palhaco" are treated in a similar manner. Not focused on grand statements, these three work to create unified statements. Epstein and Engstrom both play with a wonderfully round sound and when Engstrom occasionally flutters his air at exceptionally soft passages this only adds to the lush sound the ensemble produces. Ake’s playing is stately, refined and always in superb support of his co-horts.
The best moments are the three much too short free-jazz pieces. The first is sweet, the third is criminally hip to the nth degree, but the real charmer is in the second one. Here trills and fluted articulations run rampant between the horns with Ake adding his own perfectly timed punctuations. It’s a shame more of the disc isn’t handled like these tracks. Giving up control and totally freeing the mind suits this ensemble exceptionally well.
If there is a problem with the disc it’s in the lack of detailed counterpoint such a group could construct. With the use of many unison lines in the horns, common tempi from tune to tune, and a tendency to play almost everything at the same uniform dynamic level, a sameness envelopes the disc from tune to tune. They don’t open it up to some hard driving lines until the second last track, Aka’s "Birthday Boy," but even here they could change the pace a little and put their excellent improvisations on top of each other a little bit instead of going the traditional jazz solo route. Given more time working together, from whence they will surely open up their compositional structures more, should benefit this ensemble greatly.