Graded on a Curve: Dopolarians,
The Bond

When you combine pianist Christopher Parker, alto saxophonist Chad Fowler, trumpeter Marc Franklin, vocalist Kelley Hurt, drummer Brian Blade, and bassist William Parker, the result is the Dopolarians, whose new CD is The Bond, out now through Mahakala Music. Now, those familiar with the group’s prior effort will notice a couple shifts in personnel, but we’ll tackle those below. Of foremost importance is the high standard of quality maintained across a disc that takes many chances as it covers a wide spectrum of textures and emotions. In short, it’s a recording of distinction.

Released in 2016, the Dopolarians’ debut Garden Party was also the final recording to feature the great (and somewhat undersung) drummer Alvin Fielder, a charter member of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) who can be heard on Sound, the essential 1968 LP by Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell.

But more germane to the record under review here, Fielder played extensively with Edward “Kidd” Jordan, whose tenor saxophone is crucial to Garden Party’s sustained worthiness. For The Bond, Marc Franklin and Brian Blade complete the new lineup of Dopolarians. That duo, along with Chad Fowler, are fresh from the septet heard on Christopher Parker and Kelley Hurt’s No Tears Suite, its music composed in honor of the segregation-defying Little Rock Nine, released on CD last September by Mahakala and presented by the long running literary magazine Oxford American.

Given No Tears Suite’s subject matter, the relationship with the Little Rock, AR-based Southern-themed Oxford American makes total sense. It’s a connection, a bond of you will, that extends to Dopolarians, as every member in both lineups save for NYC free jazz cornerstone William Parker hails from the Southeastern USA, Jordan from New Orleans, Fielder from Meridian, MS, and Blade from Shreveport, LA with extensive time spent in New Orleans. Fowler, Christopher Parker, Hurt and Franklin are from Little Rock with all four having studied music in Memphis.

These roots can be heard immediately in the title-track opener through the piano and alto’s gospel flavor, though in short order Fowler and Franklin undertake a vigorous dialogue that’s pure Fire Music (so the spiritual aspect remains). In short order, the momentum does shift into more conventionally jazzy terrain, with Blade’s energetic attention to his cymbals bop-like and Franklin’s melodic turns reminding me just a little of Freddie Hubbard.

The band settles down as Hurt makes her entrance, vocalizing wordlessly, and as the instrumental intensity rises, her singing blossoms outward. From there, the spotlight turns to the piano for a splendid excursion as the rhythmic foundation is kept sturdy and fluid. A potent showcase for Parker’s bass prowess follows, accented first by Blade, then with interjections from Hurt and finally, the whole of the group’s creativity. Fowler offers a bluesy and soulful edge, and again spiritual (i.e. the gospel tinge mentioned above), his blowing mildly reminiscent of Archie Shepp, though on alto, it’s tonally distinct.

“The Emergence” bursts forth with wild (not reckless) fervor that can bring an unearthed BYG-Actuel session to mind (better recording clarity, however), but with a unique approach, e.g. the precise force of the sax and trumpet blasts, which suggest a presence of a larger horn section, plus the appealing range of Hurt, who across The Bond’s three tracks can suggest the robust grace of Abbey Lincoln and the tradition-informed explorations of Jeanne Lee.

There’re even a few brief spots where she seems poised to go on a Patty Waters-like tear, but instead dishes some exquisite scat-search for one of the recording’s standout moments. “The Emergence” offers a few more highlights, like Franklin’s licks, increasingly flashing like a young Bill Dixon, while at other times as “inside” as prime Donald Byrd. There’s a stretch where the piano seems to be cavorting in the valley between the houses where Marilyn Crispell and Jaki Byard live. And then there’s a killer bowed bass excursion that flows into some tasty three-way interaction with the piano and drums.

Also of note is the general compositional-improvisational fortitude of “The Bond” and “The Emergence”; at 21 and 30 minutes apiece, everybody shines as the progress of each track never drags. Another jackhammer horn gush (spewing like a firehose) lends cyclical heft at the finale of “The Emergence,” stressing just how adeptly Dopolarians integrate abstract splat with maneuvers both lyrical and meditative

It’s feels right as rain that “The Release,” The Bond’s third and final piece (also, at nearly ten minutes, its shortest) weds the collective’s boldest beauty moves, with uncut lung scorch, thunderous and elastic rhythms, and piano that handily nixes any vestige of conservatism. It makes plain that this incarnation of Dopolarians, like the one before it, lacks a weak link. The clarity of shared vision and the level of interaction strike a positive chord throughout.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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