Bassist and composer Christian Dillingham debuts on Dave Douglas’ Greenleaf Music, a testament to the quality of Dillingham’s music, and his first jazz album as a leader. Dillingham has a gospel, classical, and pop background as a sideman having appeared on jazz albums by Greg Ward, gospel with Kirk Franklin, pop with Ledisi among several other classical efforts. He considers his music boundless. As Sean Jones says in the liners, “The body of this album would be most enjoyed by fastening oneself to a fixed position and ‘going there’ with them.” The “them” is alto and soprano saxophonist Lenard Simpson, guitarist Dave Miller, and drummer Greg Artry. The latter is a longtime collaborator while this marks the first time that Simpson and Miller, two distinct voices, have worked together.
The opener, “The Bottoms” with is robust, rather ominous bassline and Simpson’s melodic, soulful saxophone lines, and Miller’s jagged picking, and Artry’s notable touch on the cymbals, is named for the predominantly black neighborhood where the mixed-race Dillingham grew up. “Like No Other” finds Simpson on alto and Miller crafting declarative, vibrant statements in minor bob blues while the bass-drum tandem locks in frenetically until they too, step forward together with their own turn. From here, Dillingham becomes more reflective in “South State Line Road” a meditation on home that varies between “warm” and uncertain as his bass ostinato represents the thought line of his development process, all the while with ‘home’ in mind. Unlike the previous two pieces, the melody is less apparent, as the piece is mostly improvised with Miller often echoing Simpson’s initial thrusts and later, dissonant chords as well as Arty’s clashes on his ride cymbal especially noteworthy.
The walking bassline alone makes “One Breath” just a bit more tangible, but it never settles into a distinct grove with Simpson and Miller refracting off one another as the rhythm tandem contributes to the dense backdrop which turns distinctly more spacious and much darker in the aptly titled, “Lost in Desolation.” “Homeostasis” is by far the most lyrical of this grouping, with Simpson and Miller forcefully leading the melody, leaving room for the leader’s impressive plucking and later, some bluesy phrases from Miller. The quartet doesn’t stay in this through-composed state for long however, reaching into the ether and beyond on “No Froust,” punctuated with Miller’s haunting chords and short gasps from Simpson until he blows increasingly fiercely in the last couple of minutes.
The almost seventy minutes of music continues with “Undulation,” a return to more lyrical fare, with Miller and Simpson statedly trading choruses, building intensity as the piece evolves. “Someday Soon” is pensive, the closest approximation of a ballad herein while this restless quartet again takes another direction in the closing “Code Switch,” a vibrant, rocking track that’s meant, like so many others here, to convey the struggles of race and identity.
The strength of this impressive debut is both the spirited playing and the breadth of moods and emotions addressed. The unpredictability makes for a seriously engaged listening experience.
- Jim Hynes