By Joseph Murphy
Sometimes, in distinguishing stylists and recordings, it's the little things that stand out. In some cases these are extra musical—less related to content than form. Such is the case with two closely matched CDs from emerging artists flugelhornist Dmitri Matheny and pianist Mark Little on California-based Monarch Records.
The production quality is apparent from the opening tracks. Stressing a bright sound with high resolution and full range clarity, the sets are marked by exceptional tonal opulence. It's a factor often overlooked in maiden recordings with the result that artists are presented with less than their best face forward.
Additionally, Monarch seems to be among the better organized small labels, as evidenced by an all-fronts promotion marked by exceptional thoroughness—lessons for small label hopefuls and artists pondering first recordings.
Packaged well, these sets are strong on content, too. Matheny is that jazz rarity who plays flugelhorn exclusively. Rather than dwell too much on instrumental territories mapped out by that instrument's great practitioners, such as Art Farmer and Clark Terry, Matheny employs his formidable chops in a full range of chromatic approaches.
With the capacity to emulate the colors of trombone, trumpet and French horn, the flugelhorn is a versatile horn in the right hands, and Matheny understands its textural range well. Stressing the supple liquidity of tone unique to the instrument, he moves from the trombonistic melisma of the title cut, joined only by the guitar of John Heller, to the full ensemble head of "Kuumbwa Blues," where trumpet-like articulation with complete facility is the order of the day. Sliding into the slinky samba of "Like a River," Matheny traces the curving melody line with slurs and bends before pulling up into evenly paced eighth note runs that display consistently unhurried, evocative phrasing.
Tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis matches up well in ideas and tone with Matheny, while Heller is a standout rhythmic presence and an engaging soloist who displays original phrasing. His turn on "Sketch" shows a strong sense of form and interval as he circles the compelling circular vamp of bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Scott Amendola.
Pianist Little brings a quartet to The Tribe for a set of nicely chosen work from the likes of Scofield, Silver and Parker as well as two originals. A two-handed stylist with a penchant for block chord development and well-integrated melodies, Little has a formidable sense of pace, at once restrained and rhythmically assured.
On Horace Silver's "Tokyo Blues" Little shows of his sense of structure by building a solo that springs off the singsong motive with a churning block chord introduction that gives way to a stinging right hand excursion before building down with brisk descending chords. His solo turn on "You Can't Go Home Again" reveals a debt to his teacher, Bill Evans, in voicings and pace, while including a decidedly bluesy way with the right hand trill more Red Garland than Evans. Little's thunderous, Tyneresque, ascending fifths on the title cut prod saxophonist Alex Murzyn into a brimming solo, rife with edgy partials and muscular phrasing. Bassist Peter Barshay and drummer Curt Moore provide superb backup for the soloists.
Kudos to Monarch for giving two emerging talents such strong send offs, and to Matheny and Little for having fully realized projects that warrant the attention.