The idea of the drummer as bandleader is an oddity in most circles. The mind typically jumps to Phil Collins, or at least a goof with one of those Garth Brooks microphones that wraps around the head. Even in the jazz world, the drummer/composer isnt super-common. There are plenty of good examples, to be sure (Max Roach, Gene Krupa), but the composing is typically left to more melodic instrumentalists: the pianists, trumpeters, saxophonists. But, lately, it seems that the seemingly odd combination is popping up left and right. Chicagos Mike Reed is a great drummer, but his People Places and Things project lets him show off not only his compositions, but also his ability as a jazz historian.
People Places and Things released an excellent disc just last year, which makes the strength of the project’s latest release, About Us, even more prolific. Last years Proliferation was the groups attempt to explore a specific era of Chicago jazz. The disc showed off the groups ability to interpret and recreate the late 50s bop of famous Chicagoans like Sun Ra and Wilbur Campbell. On that disc, bassist Jason Roebke, tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman, alto saxophonist Greg Ward, and Reed blared through some absolute gems from the past without sounding anywhere near stale. About Us, as the liner notes explain, is, well, about them. The tracks are nearly all written by band members, though they certainly hearken back to the strengths of the scene they explored on the last disc. The three non-band-written tracks are written by featured players on the disc; improv master/trombonist Jeb Bishop, sublime tenor man David Boykin and Tortoise guitarist/all around superman Jeff Parker each contribute a tune.
From the kickstart of Its Enough, the group takes on the role of revisionist historian; instead of reproducing the music of yesteryear, theyre tearing it apart and gluing it back together in exciting new combinations. Reeds skipping, hopping kit work grounds twirling, intertwining solos from Haldeman and Ward as Roebkes slinky, understated bass work locks into step. V.S. #1, written by Ward, is much more indebted to traditional bop. The saxes produce a big, marquee-worthy head as Reed dexterously pops the ride and snare. Next, the title track feels like a reworking of a Sonny Rollins tune, perfectly set for a swinging lounge scene.
The Next Time You Are Near, a Reed composition, is a melancholy wail of a ballad. The drumming sounds 50 feet away, a lighter than air and fading rhythm as Roebkes trembles wallow underneath the saxes autumnal moans. Flat Companion, also by Reed, is boppy and big, the rhythm swinging forward, letting the front line show off their soloing abilities. Even playing background, Reed and Roebke play inventively, adding a fill here and there to keep you listening intently.
Despite the amazing talent of People, Places and Things (or maybe because of it), the guest musicians tunes may be the best on the disc. Boykins Big and Fine clocks in at nearly eleven minutes, and opens with a bluesy tenor head. As each saxophonist lopes into the scene, spinning around and intermingling with Boykins lead, the piece grows into a bigger, more complex beast. Bishop, an absolute staple of Chicagos jazz and improvised music scenes, provides Big Stubby, an electric bop piece. At first, Bishops trombone solos without any accompaniment. Reed soon joins in, providing a spine for Bishops bubbling inventions. About two and a half minutes in, everyone comes together in an astoundingly cool melody that will stick in heads for days. Haldemans solo later in the tune careens in and out of control, fluttering like a butterfly with one wing as the rest of the front line forms around him. As this happens, the drum and bass fall away completely, leaving an ecstatic, sharp mess of horn soloing. Jeff Parkers Days Fly By (With Ruby) features Parkers technically impressive, sonically engaging guitar solos over Reeds spot-on assistance. Even when vamping in the background of the saxophonists solos, Parkers work is something you must pay attention to.
The liner notes on About Us promise a third disc, combining the players of the past (the ones that made up the basis of their first disc) with the tunes of the present. Until that probably mind-blowing album is released, Ill wear out this one.