Criss Cross CRISS1418CD

Michael Thomas (alto saxophone); Manuel Valera (piano); Matt Brewer (bass); Obed Calvaire (drums)

Recorded September 14, 2023

This is the saxophonist’s fourth outing as leader for Criss Cross, and a challenging and bumpy ride it can be in places. All the material with the exception of ‘It Could Happen To You’ has been written by the altoist, and this may be the stumbling block for some listeners.

The information in the CD booklet extols the virtues of Thomas’s extensive study both at music colleges and private study, and there is a feeling when listening to the music presented that the theoretical aspects of the compositions overshadow the music played.

The musicians featured on the recording were assembled for that very reason, and while the altoist explains that he selected these players specifically for their ability to interpret the music he had written, it all gets too complex for the quartet to gel in the way that Thomas gives the impression that they did.

The saxophonist in looking for a personal way in which to frame his music has done so by investigating unusual meters. The opening number ‘Circles’ is in 9/4 which Thomas admits he has struggled to feel comfortable with, and this shows in his solo that from a promising start follows a rather frenetic path.

It is not helped by a rather leaden sound for both bass and drums, that give a weary effect to proceedings. This is not helped much on ‘The Other Side’ either in which Valera and Brewer switch to electric piano and bass guitar.

For me it was the second half of the album that made my ears prick up. ‘Shades of Green’ is a much more interesting theme played at a brisk tempo, and most importantly it swings. Not so bound up in being cleverly written and overly complex there are fine solo from both alto and piano, in what up until this point has been the most satisfying performance of the set.

As if they have hit their stride, this is immediately followed by the ballad ‘Mnemosyne’ in which the warm sound of Brewer’s double bass and brushes of Obed Calvaire provide a calm and solid backdrop for the leader’s alto. Matt Brewer also gets his moment to shine in the excellent title track, a waltz in ¾ that again brings out the best in Thomas.

As if to confound the theory of complexity over the tried and tested, the album concludes with some of the best playing of the session on Van Heusen and Burke’s evergreen ‘It Could Happen To You’. Here the band really do gel, with bass and drums instinctively knowing just how hard to push and pianist Manuel Valera serving up his best solo of the date, followed by an assured and assertive from the leader.

An interesting listen that might defeat some who don’t have the patience or inclination to wait the good stuff in an album that is definitely a game of two halves.