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Plant Life by Odean Pope Trio

Odean Pope was with the Max Roach quartet for over 20 years. Though influenced by hard bop and John Coltrane, he has diverged more from Coltrane's powerful legacy than many edgy tenor players. He is one of the most immediately identifiable voices on his instrument because of a rounded, aggressive tone made even harsher (or is it stronger and purer) by limited use of vibrato and dynamics. Especially in this piano-less trio context, the sound will hypnotize or annoy. Either way, it's hard to ignore.

So is drummer Sunny Murray. He played for years with Cecil Taylor, arguably the furthest out of any jazz pianist. The two practiced together in the early 60s and produced a style that deemphasized strict tempos, often using their instruments abstractly, as though smearing colors on a canvas. They were among the earliest free jazz players.

Lee Smith, a more mainstream player, rounds out the group. (He is the father of bassist Christian MacBride.) I welcome Smith's well-grounded center on this date.

Five of the seven tunes on the release were written by Pope. Murray is listed as composer of the other two, and he is a capable writer, but "I Want to Talk About You," a gorgeous ballad, was written by Billy Eckstine rather than Murray. It's an album highlight in any event, and proves that Pope can use more vibrato and a softer tone when he wants to. "Thoughts," an unaccompanied solo, is another fine example of that.

"Two Dreams," a tune he plays often, starts this session and is also reprised to end it. The piece has a slightly lighter feel than much of Pope's writing, at times even reminding me of Sonny Rollins's "St. Thomas." Pope is the main soloist, using quite a few rapid, cascading quarter-note runs. Lee has a bit of solo time and is the main time-keeper, while Murray provides colorful snare accents throughout.

Murray's "Happiness Tears" is a satirical sounding piece. The old three-note NBC call letter theme plays a role. Pope is at his hardest on this one, and the drums and base both add to a free-jazz feel most of the way. They have an ebb-and-flow duo conversation before Pope returns with the mainline.

The title tune has more of the mood of the opener. Lee solos briefly after the leader. While Pope takes it out, Murray plays with the rhythm, even adding a slight Latin vibe for a bit.

Though not without a sense of humor, Odean Pope is intensely serious about his music and demands quite a bit of listeners. Smooth jazz fans can safely steer clear. Even more experienced listeners may need to listen a few times with unusually open ears before appreciating what this group is doing. But it's worth it. Recommended for the adventurous.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Odean Pope Trio
  • CD Title: Plant Life
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2008
  • Record Label: Porter Records
  • Tracks: Two Dreams Parts 1, Happiness Tears, Plant Life, Scorpio Twins, Multiphonic, Thoughts, Two Dreams Parts 2
  • Musicians: Odean Pope (tenor sax), Sunny Murray (drums), Lee Smith (bass)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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