Graded on a Curve: Jeremy Cunningham / Dustin Laurenzi / Paul Bryan, A Better Ghost

Cohorts and collaborators Jeremy Cunningham and Dustin Laurenzi have been strengthening the foundation of contemporary Chicago jazz for roughly a decade. On A Better Ghost, out July 29 on bullion-colored vinyl and digital through Northern Spy, they’ve honed a set of nine compositions alongside Los Angelino Paul Bryan, who co-produced Cunningham’s 2019 LP The Weather Up There. Laurenzi contributes tenor sax, OP-1 synthesizer and electronics, Bryan brings bass and synth, and Cunningham handles the drums and percussion. The pieces resonate with emotion and are often surprising as they eclipse boundaries.

Of the individuals who’ve shaped this album, Paul Bryan has the most extensive discography. In addition to playing bass on a slew of records, he has a long list of production credits, winning a Grammy in 2017 for Aimee Mann’s Mental Illness, in addition to working as an engineer, arranger, and session-touring musician.

Bryan also plays on guitarist Jeff Parker’s albums The New Breed (2016) and Suite for Max Brown (2020), as Parker is heard on and helped produce Bryan’s very nifty Cri$el Gems (2020). This solidifies the Chicago connection, as Parker is a stalwart Windy City guy perhaps best known for his work as a member of Tortoise, though germane to this review is his playing on and co-production of Cunningham’s The Weather Up There.

Said album also features Laurenzi and saxophonist Josh Johnson, the latter bringing a little alto to A Better Ghost; rounding out the contributors are Will Miller on trumpet, Katie Ernst on vocals, and Joe Bellerose on drums. The seed of this new record is improvisations and experiments that were recorded over the telephone, then sharpened and expanded following Bryan’s emergence into the scheme.

Opener “Everything” begins with a hovering sax loop before Bryan and Cunningham make their entrances, in turn setting up a showcase for Laurenzi, both in terms of melodic phrasing and as a soloist halfway between burning and beauty, and as he soars, the rhythm rolls underneath. The piece’s later portion features a recording of a man speaking, an aspect that will be familiar to those who’ve heard The Weather Up There.

Additionally, the swirling thickness of the applied electronics reinforces a level of comfort and a disdain for standard tropes, so that A Better Ghost steers clear of fusion clichés. And in terms of fusion, we’re decidedly nearer to post-rock territory than Weather Report or Return to Forever, though Laurenzi, with his warm tone, does deliver a handful of ’70s twists.

But overall, the trio seems to prefer methodical crescendos of strangeness, as in “Worlds Turn,” or slathering R&B-ish propulsion with shades of synthetic mbira and breath gusts worthy of Pharoah Sanders, as in the title track. “Comfort Station” does capture the trio in something of a mid-‘60s free-bop mode (but with clear contemporary aspects, such as Cunningham’s snare rolls), and “New Dust”  has an air of loft-era Spiritualism about it (Bryan’s upright bass is robust), at least until the electronics rise up into the mix, and then it’s like Craig Leon meets Creed Taylor.

And speaking of Taylor, “Ray Tracing” is a nice combo of CTI-ish flair and ’90s elements, both electronic and rhythmic, while “Bye Line,” with more huge upright bass, taps into a tranquility redolent of being alone in nature. Both are solid tracks, but I’m quite struck by “With What We Have,” which sounds like it could’ve been cut in the ’80s for Crammed Discs, and I’m even more taken by the gorgeous “The Way We Remember,” a tribute to Jeffrey Cunningham, Jeremy’s father, with singing by Ernst. It’s a moving finale for A Better Ghost, a record that’s permeated with humanity throughout.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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