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The Long And Short Of It by The Fred Hess Quartet

Looks can be deceiving. One look at the cover of Fred Hess’ latest release, The Long And Short Of It, featuring Fred in conservative attire, looking like a middle-aged accountant, and you might be led to believe that this would be a safe, mainstream affair. Instead what Hess, an educator, composer, performer and winner of the Julius Hemphill Award for Jazz Composition delivers is a loose set of compositions that flow freely with ideas in form and rhythm.

Hess’ approach is multifaceted, sometimes within the context of a single tune. "Norman Says" starts out with a light rhythm and snakelike theme, with Hess’ tenor and Ron Miles’ trumpet shifting between unison, close harmonies and broader intervals. Bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Matt Wilson keep the groove going, for the most part, during Hess’ Braxton-ish solo, breaking things up here and there along the way, shifting into something resembling an ostinato for Miles’ solo, with Wilson stopping and starting throughout. "Skippin’ In" is an appropriate title for a piece that skips around a consistent rhythm; often coming close, but rarely settling in for long.

What is remarkable is how, with rare exception, Hess’ compositions tend to frequently break down, but rarely lose site completely of a rhythmic or harmonic centre. The one diversion from that concept is the brief "Gear Tips," where everyone seems intent on coaxing foreign sounds out of their instruments. Miles and Hess blow air, use multiphonics and other techniques; Filiano flutters about the strings and coaxes out unusual harmonics; what Wilson does is simply mysterious.

While everyone performs with a unique combination of restraint and abandon, special mention should be made of Hess’ Denver, Colorado neighbor, Ron Miles. Miles, even at his most obscure, maintains clear ties to tradition. His 2002 recording, Heaven, saw him paired with guitarist Bill Frisell in a series of duets that, even when they were his own compositions, were steeped in traditions that extended beyond those of jazz; on Hess’ disk, buried amidst the free explorations one can find traces that go right back to Dixieland and the beginnings of jazz. He consistently plays with a warm tone and an adventurous spirit.

And Hess, too, manages to ply tradition even in the more experimental context of his own compositions. His ideas may be contemporary, but his smoky sound leads right back to Lester Young. The best forward-thinkers have a clear understanding of the traditions that came before them, and both Hess and Miles demonstrate a concept that ties together what has come before, enhances it and reaches forward with it well in hand.

The Long And Short Of It is an adventurous recording that may not appeal to the mainstream listener that the cover would lead one to think is the target audience but, instead, will appeal to those with big enough ears to hear how the roots of any style can be subsumed and twisted on its ear to create something far more contemporary.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: The Fred Hess Quartet
  • CD Title: The Long And Short Of It
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2004
  • Record Label: Tapestry
  • Tracks: Skippin In will surprise listeners with its intimate tone and joy
  • Musicians: Fred Hess, tenor saxophone, leader, composer. Ron Miles, trumpet. Ken Filiano, bass. Matt Wilson, drums.
  • Rating: Four Stars
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