A lone trombone casts a shard of song onto the waves, a bottle with a note inside: Is anybody out there?
“Outrospection,” the title track of bassist Rodney Whitaker’s latest CD, bares the scars from the lonely year of 2020, along with hopes for a better future together.
Whitaker recalled the momentous day last August when he convened an all-star ensemble of musicians who hadn’t played for months.
“People felt like crying after the first tune,” Whitaker said. “There was a point in the pandemic where you just felt no hope, nobody knew whether we were going to play again.”
Whitaker being Whitaker, the album is overwhelmingly life affirming, but it has an alert, off-kilter intensity, even at its most optimistic. The last track, “Peace Song,” soothes the soul while leaving plenty of room for questions.
“People were afraid to be in the studio with other people,” Whitaker said. “We were in separate booths. We were on edge and I hear all of that in the music. They played at a different level of sensitivity.”
“Outrospection” continues the fruitful association between Whitaker and composer Gregg Hill, a longtime patron of jazz in Lansing, that began with their 2019 album, “Common Ground.”
Hill’s tunes, arranged by Whitaker, go through a lot of phases, but not to show off. The music follows elusive emotional arcs and intellectual labyrinths, grasping on to the work of jazz greats like Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter and Duke Ellington’s musical partner, Billy Strayhorn, as a thread in the darkness.
“Gregg told a good story with the compositions,” Whitaker said. “All I did was organize it.”
In the title tune, trombonist Michael Dease’s aching solo is subjected to a series of brisk bumps, in the style of Monk. Suddenly, a waltz groove as warm as a lover’s breath answers Dease’s note in the bottle: “Don’t fear. We’re here.” When Dease returns for a second solo, he sounds as if he’s washed ashore and breathing again, like Ulysses.
“For me, that tune summed up what everybody was feeling, the sadness of that time and the joy to come,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker’s original personnel picks for the session, trumpeter Terrell Stafford and saxophonist Tim Warfield, didn’t want to travel because of the pandemic.
Fortunately, Whitaker could draw on his fellow MSU Professors of Jazz, including Dease, trumpeter Etienne Charles, saxophonist Diego Rivera, pianist Xavier Davis and drummer Randy Gelispie. (Last week, Dease was named 2021 Trombonist of the Year in DownBeat magazine’s Critics’ Poll.) Guitarist Randy Napoleon also pops in for a track, meshing beautifully with Davis.
Rivera soars from languid romance to vein-bursting urgency with equal conviction, Charles is nimble as a butterfly and vocalist Rockelle Fortin pushes her swinging art into the rarefied, exposed atmosphere of 20th-century art song. Fortin also wrote lyrics to several of the tunes.
Anchoring the music’s phases and moods, Whitaker is a volcanic boulder that barely obtrudes above the waves. When he does take center stage, he doesn’t waste a second. His solo on the Utopian ballad “New Sunday” is like rain dripping from leaves when a storm has past. It sums up the hopeful tone of the entire album.
Whitaker’s optimism is all the more remarkable, considering the impact of the pandemic on jazz world, and his own circle.
“For about 30 days, you kept hearing news about some jazz icon dying,” he said. “I know a lot of people who lost their apartments and had to leave New York City, or sell insurance or real estate.”
Fresh from a series of gigs of Australia, the peripatetic bassist had to put the brakes on touring in March 2020. He laid low in East Lansing and kept busy running the jazz studies program, teaching students, doing a lot of recording and catching up with his family.
“We ate a meal together as a family six or seven nights a week, and I got more rest than I ever did,” he said. “I started taking better care of my health, my diet.”
Now he’s traveling again, but only one weekend or so every month — “a better balance than I had before.”
“Everybody’s calling for recordings, club dates, concerts — a lot of international calls. People are trying to pick up where they left off, starting to plan tours again.”
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