David Chesky's Jazz in the New Harmonic Quintet: Primal Scream
Chesky Records

It's a shame someone already used Kind of Blue because in many ways it seems like the perfect title choice for the second recording by David Chesky's Jazz in the New Harmonic Quintet. Further to that, Primal Scream would appear to be a rather less than natural title selection, given that the music on the release rarely howls, though perhaps Chesky chose it for some other reason than any connection it might have to Arthur Janov's novel psychotherapy approach. Regardless, the New York-based composer's bluesy album packs a powerfully evocative, late-night punch that's heavily noirish in atmosphere.

For those unfamiliar with Chesky's name, he's a three-time Grammy nominee whose music spans jazz and classical genres. In addition to his considerable talents as a jazz pianist, he's composed orchestral works, operas, and ballets, written children's books, and is a highly respected audiophile; Opera News went so far as to say “Chesky could turn out to be a one-man Brecht-Weill for the twenty-first century.” Interestingly, Chesky's passion for both forms was evident at the outset of his career, as after his 1974 move from Miami to New York he took up studying composition and piano, respectively, with David Del Tredici and The Modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis. Chesky doesn't treat jazz and classical as separate entities, however, as the material he composes for his Jazz in the New Harmonic quintet—Chesky on piano, bassist Peter Washington, tenor saxist Javon Jackson, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, and drummer Billy Drummond—threads contemporary classical harmonies into its jazz-based framework.

A few tunes do call to mind Kind of Blue, but stronger Miles-related reference points for Primal Scream would be Filles de Kilimanjaro (specifically its opening track “Frelon Brun”) and In a Silent Way. Cases in point, “Check Point Charlie” wouldn't sound terribly out of place on Miles Smiles or Nefertiti, and the piano chords and drumming style in “Cultural Treason” could be construed as In a Silent Way homages—none of which is cause for complaint, by the way. Even if the presence of jazz masters can be detected in Chesky's group sound, the music is no less satisfying for being part of a long-standing tradition. The band also mixes things up by not only working blues into its presentation but, as the title track and “Sleepless in New York” testify, R&B and funk, too. Though its playing might be cerebral and cool, it's also not lacking for emotional resonance.

Chesky's outfit isn't an outright imitation of Miles's ‘50s-‘60s quintets—his bold playing on the title track aside, Drummond largely plays with a restraint that's far removed from Tony Williams's dynamic invention, for example—yet there are moments where the similarities are hard to deny. Jackson's smoky entrance on “Check Point Charlie,” to cite one instance, evokes Coltrane, while Pelt's muted horn can't help but suggest an invisible Miles looming nearby. Interestingly, while he does contribute daringly dissonant solos throughout, Chesky appears as content to support the trumpet-saxophone front-line. Still, it's as a composer and conceptualist that he most shines on this hour-long date. Pieces such as “Cultural Treason,” “Isolation,” and “Kill the Philharmonic” offer superb compositional examples of acoustic jazz, especially in the way the lead trumpet and saxophone themes weave and coil around one another. Regardless of whether the piece in question is uptempo or a slow blues, to a man the band members execute the material with unerring poise.

June 2015