Graded on a Curve:
Tomeka Reid Quartet,
Old New

When the conversation turns to jazz, the integration of tradition and innovation is a reliable topic of discussion. Hey, it’s right there in the two adjectives that make up the title of the sophomore effort from the Tomeka Reid Quartet. Featuring the leader’s cello on nine selections alongside guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Jason Roebke, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, Old New is a superb blend of historical heft, contemporary verve, and unified personal expression. Rather than a tactic faltering into a trope, a high level of quality is sustained, partly because the combination of then and now isn’t belabored or overly codified. Instead, it just sounds natural. The CD and digital are out now on Cuneiform Records.

Make no mistake, in addition to the roles of bandleader, composer and arranger, Tomeka Reid is a player of distinction, and only partially due to her chosen instrument, the cello, persisting as somewhat unusual in the jazz scheme of things. It should come as no surprise that prior to her move into jazz, Reid was focused on classical music, a realm where the cello is much more common.

In the promo notes for this release, Reid mentions that one of her early gateways into jazz was a book of basslines by Rufus Reid (no relation), and one would be hard-pressed to come up with a deeper example of jazz’s core principles than that. She then moved from Washington, DC to Chicago, which stands as one of the enduring hotbeds for the music’s intermingling of tradition and stylistic growth.

There, she met flautist-composer Nicole Mitchell and other members of the AACM (Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians) as she began playing at the Velvet Lounge, a venue then owned and operated by the late and very great tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson. Reid’s contribution to the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s excellent We Are On The Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration, released earlier this year, could perhaps be taken as a culmination of her Windy City activities, but really, her work is just as notable for its fluid, evolving trajectory right up to Old New.

Please add the interconnectedness of her output, as she’s played with the multi-reed man, composer and core AACM member Anthony Braxton. So has Rufus Reid (on the two volumes of Seven Standards), as has Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara, who in addition to their contributions here, are two-thirds of Thumbscrew with bassist Michael Formanek; Cuneiform’s notes mention that the guitarist and drummer have played together in at least five other bands.

This level of familiarity enhances Old New, and as it’s the Quartet’s second outing, Roebke is deep in the comfort pocket as the selections unfold, joining with Fujiwara to give the opening title track bedrock sturdiness as Reid’s playing ranges from pizzicato phrasing to lyrical bowing to more abstract passages. However, the rhythmic input is more than foundational, it’s legitimately expressive, and it moves.

Better said, it cooks (one could even say it swings), with Halvorson’s immediately recognizable playing spicing the dish to perfection. Also, “Old New” is a succinct number that sets in motion the record’s emphasis on songs (so to speak). The initial moments of “Wabash Blues” help to cement the compositional focus even as it progresses into some of Reid’s wildest soloing. Halvorson sweetly complements Reid’s melodic line at the start, then gets to flaunt some versatility in her own solo spot.

I’d say she leads into a splendid kit workout from Fujiwara, but the reality is that he’s on creative fire throughout the track (ditto the album). Likewise, Roebke’s sound is as big and as beautiful as an Amish barn for the duration. “Wabash Blues” has an almost “inside-outside” thing happening (the inside being a smidge reminiscent of gypsy jazz, directly related to Reid’s violin-like fleetness), as does “Niki’s Bop” (a tribute to Nicole Mitchell), though mostly that cut reminds me of New Orleans (in Fujiwara’s playing, this time) but by way of Chicago. It’s also dancy as a mother.

Nearly half of “Aug. 6” is a flurry of plucked strings and struck objects highlighting the group’s leftfield bona fides, but then Halvorson whips off a tuneful line with Reid following suit and matters appealingly straighten out. It’s a fitting prelude for “Ballad,” a dual showcase for the guitarist (who happens to be the inspiration for the piece’s writing) and the cellist, with Reid delivering some truly dynamic playing on both sides of Halvorson’s solo.

Although I’d say acceptance of the avant-garde is crucial to fully enjoy Old New, much of the record is inviting enough to please seasoned lovers of classic jazz, but it’s really “Sadie” the exemplifies Reid’s comfort with sprightly, amiable (almost West Coast-like) post-bop. Hell, Halvorson even plays like she’s cutting a platter for Bob Weinstock, but then her increasingly signature warped wiggle arises and that’s totally up to date.

Like “Aug. 6,” the beginning of “Edelin” travels solidly down the abstract (and near free improv) lane, though don’t get the idea it’s a manic excursion. In short order, Roebke and Fujiwara establish a groove, supple but large, and then Halvorson rips out a few lines that rekindle memories of her work in Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant. Along the way, Reid’s cello is as sinewy as it is lithe.

“Peripatetic” highlights the breath of Reid’s compositional strengths, nodding back to her classical background perhaps and more firmly her work with Braxton, offering an album’s worth of ideas in under five minutes while driving home the acumen of every member of the band. It really asserts the forward-focus of Reid’s work, but then “RN” closes Old New with one last flirtation with the tradition, this one poppy and with a bossa nova flavor that’s deliciously non-retro. On her Quartet’s latest, Tomeka Reid has the equation fully worked out, and the results are fabulous.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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