Remember how bassist Oscar Pettiford would take huge breaths between notes while soloing? This bad brother seemingly envisioned his instrument, his…self, as a horn, so you could hear him inhale before his fingers would pluck out a low-end exhale-ation.
Pettiford came to mind while listening to guitarist Tom Rizzo’s debut album, Imaginary Numbers (Origin). With active accompaniment from a five-piece horn section and full rhythm section, Rizzo’s role here features his guitar in collaboration with the horns. It’s almost as if Rizzo is the sixth horn here, standing alongside his brothers in brass. Perhaps the guitar featured on the disc’s front cover could, with some imagination, really be considered a horn with strings and frets.
Imaginary Numbers allows ample feature space for tenor and soprano saxophonist Bob Sheppard. Eight of the nine songs are arranged with much precision by trombonist Nick Lane and tuba player Ken Kugler, but the accompanists and section support all come across as sounding natural, not too tight. And while Imaginary Numbers 44:34 playing time may be slightly lean, its contents are not minimalist.
Rizzo contributes three original compositions to this effort, “B-Like,” the title track, and “Sco-Mi.” All three display his concept for this project and, except the title track, complement the other standards included by Benny Golson and J.J. Johnson, among others. With “B-Like,” Rizzo and his core rhythm mates, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe La Barbera, open and are then joined in swing by pianist Rich Eames and the horn section, which also features trumpeter Bob Summers and John Dickson, who plays French horn. Although the piano is somewhat low in the mix on this cut, Sheppard’s and Rizzo’s harmonizing and soloing carry the tune quite well.
For the title track, Rizzo presents his acoustic guitar in duet with soprano saxophone. He overdubs an electric guitar solo that blends beautifully with his acoustic accompaniment. This track is a departure from the others, as it is the only one that possesses a samba vibe.
Those of you familiar with Grace Under Pressure, John Scofield’s 1992 release that teamed guitar with a three-piece horn section, will recognize Rizzo’s nod to it on “Sco-Mi.” This track builds nicely, beginning with bouncy swing by Rizzo, Warrington and La Barbera, which is then followed by Sheppard’s tenor stating the melody with Rizzo, a combination that Scofield favored on his release. What makes this track most noteworthy is Summers’ muted trumpet becoming the third voice in the harmony. This combination and cooperation work really well here.
For the always harrowing “Lament,” Eames and Rizzo remain present and very delicate when accompanying Sheppard’s introduction on tenor. A sublime atmosphere is then maintained by the horns during Eames’ solo, before Sheppard brings this interpretation to its crescendo.
Now, unless you are told beforehand, you might never guess that the ensemble is going to play “Stella By Starlight,” judging from its introduction, which actually brings a marching band at a college football game to mind. This interpretation begins with tuba and trombone before soprano saxophone and trumpet enter. While all this is occurring, La Barbera adds a Gene Krupa-style dance on the tom-toms. Sure, the melody to this tune does get addressed, dissected and improvised on by Sheppard, Rizzo and Warrington, but the arrangements clever introduction and conclusion makes it the most radical rearrangement on the album.
The closer, “Along Came Betty,” begins with an ethereal feel that characterizes many records produced by ECM, but it evolves into the basic be-bop feel characterized by the early Blue Note recordings. While Sheppard’s tenor introduces the melody, his horn mates offer dreamy-like embellishment. Rizzo and Sheppard then take turns making the melody into a more meditative rendering. These musings abruptly become a be-bop stomp when La Barbera’s cymbal showers become a vigorous drum-kit workout. This serves as a good catalyst for solos by Rizzo and Sheppard.
With Imaginary Numbers, Rizzo places the entire ensemble as the purpose, with the soloing by himself and others as the complement. Even on the disc’s back cover, he lists the entire ensemble first, and his name last. For Rizzo, leadership means collaboration, not competition.