Engaging composer, solid and versatile trumpet player, and alchemic bandleader - these are the three pillars of young musician Greg Glassman’s attack, and it has all come together for him with remarkable élan and maturity on the premiere release by his quartet. The first two go hand in hand from one track to the next, rendering Onward and Upward something of a boxing match between his playing and the original structures in which he couches it. But to top it off, he takes a cue from Miles Davis’ playbook, surrounding himself with a crop of young and engaging talent, to prod, provoke, and placate his own thoughtful excursions. All together, these elements produce both a debut worthy of attention and expectations for where this band might go in the future.
In fact, the most insistent and consistent feature of this disc is Glassman’s semi-traditionalist compositional skills. He exhibits a modern touch that transforms old-style materials, such as the Blue Note era bounce of "Lenox Avenue" or "TGV," but isn’t afraid to slow things down during the haunting "Rowe Chapel Hymn" (featuring the puffed-out, Gary Burton-esque vibe work of Bryan Carrott) or the sumptuous, orchestral "May Day." The latter, clocking in at just under three minutes, sits like a stunning manifesto on the virtues of restraint and the elegance hidden in reverence. That is, reverence that doesn’t equal pallid imitation, but rather respectful rejuvenation. Indeed, it is this ability of Glassman’s - to draw accessible, individual, rock hard melodic lines through the sands of standard jazz-based structures - that distinguishes his tunes and marks the highlights of an often-impressive album. Pianist Dave Pier’s "Man Among Men" limps and wanders, and "If I Had You" shuffles from one expected turn to another, both pointing up the subtle originality of Glassman’s own work, providing as it does arching sighs and stand-up-and-dance surprises.
Glassman ably exposes these qualities with his somewhat less impressive playing. His style is a macho, muscular mélange of influences, which can cavort at high tempos with Freddie Hubbard-like descending machine gun runs, shuffle and shake mid-register melodies, or even snuggle up to a tight vibrato on his more sinuous, slow-tempo lines. To be certain, his control of his instrument is almost never a problem - be it the bright surprise of off-beat rhythmic accents, the volume control that corrals outbursts until they are truly warranted, or the melodic imagination that alters even the most basic ballad beginnings into intriguing works of art. Still, Glassman suffers from a tendency to fill his hesitant moments with brassy repetitions; much in the manner of Sonny Rollins, the static state of the studio seems on occasion to trap his imagination within the mechanical twists and turns of his technique. His gambit, from time to time (again like Rollins) being to either fill the spaces with almost distracting technical repetitions - like a prisoner sketching the bars of his cell over and over again - or to just drop back, economize, and hold notes beyond their breaking point.
However, this is a minor quibble about what is ultimately an extremely satisfying session. As an exhibition of the final side of his musical personality, his ability to assemble a top-caliber band, major praise goes to Glassman for bringing young pianist Dave Pier into the big time. This is certainly a pair of hands to listen for, an improviser who eschews all out revolution in favor of breathtaking, perfectly integrated subversion. Several of his solos ("Lenox Avenue," "TGV," and "Middle Passage") are standouts, his limber one-note lines suddenly stopping in mid-phrase, interrupted with semi-knotted, semi-ringing two handed exchanges, where the rests ricochet like shrapnel. It recalls the astonishing sense of novelty one felt in discovering Jason Moran on those early Osby discs not so long ago.
In any case, Onward and Upward is not intended for those who come to music with an agenda - be it revolutionary or retroactive - but rather will ring loud and clear for those who simply require that it be thoughtful, mature, invigorating, and (gasp!) terribly enjoyable. The lack of pretension here is impressive, as is Glassman’s commitment to his three-part craft. So when can we expect the next one?