I’m vacationing in California as you read this, you’re bracing for the Republican occupation, and FONT, the second annual Festival of New Trumpet Music curated by Dave Douglas, Roy Campbell, and Jon Nelson, is already half over. Just because I’m going to miss Hugh Ragin and Herb Robertson at Tonic, and then rare appearances by avant-eminences Leo Smith at Tonic August 25 and Bill Dixon at the Center August 31, doesn’t mean you should—unless, of course, you plan to flee before the invasion. If you’ve been to any of the shows so far, or paid attention to the soloists in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and Maria Schneider’s big band, you don’t need me to tell you that jazz is rife with talented younger trumpeters. But with Wynton Marsalis and Dave Douglas at their peaks, there’s not much room at the top.
In terms of how they’re perceived, today’s trumpeters come in two varieties, Wyntons and Daves. Contrary to what you may have heard, the defining difference isn’t race: Brian Lynch is a Wynton and Wallace Roney a Dave. It boils down to a trumpeter’s stand on the canon versus electric Miles, free-form, modern European composers, and electronica. Jeremy Pelt, sensationally gifted and still in his late twenties, is a Wynton, despite plugging in for his FONT set at Tonic two weeks ago and including Booker Little (dissonance) and Chet Baker (lyrical simplicity) in his personal canon. Ron Horton, a member of the Jazz Composers Collective whose quick-witted solos with Andrew Hill should be enough make him a name, is a Dave, and therein lies his problem—the current scheme allows for only one brainy white guy, and Douglas has that part sewn up.
Pelt’s Close to My Heart, his first domestic release following imports on Fresh Sound and Criss Cross, is from 2003; I’m just now getting around to it because I had trouble overcoming my initial ambivalence. Things go wrong right away with Charles Mingus’s “Weird Nightmare,” one of five tracks where a string quartet arranged by David O’Rourke enfolds Pelt and the first-call rhythm section of Mulgrew Miller, Peter Washington, and Lewis Nash in perfumed gauze. (As Gunther Schuller inadvertently demonstrated with Epitaph, if it’s in tune and one tempo from start to finish, it ain’t Mingus.) O’Rourke’s plodding Mantovani is especially bothersome for being attached to numbers not yet in the standard repertoire and might have been ideal for Pelt. When was the last time anyone not a cabaret singer recorded Frank Loesser’s “In Your Eyes” or Dorothy Wayne and Raymond Rasch’s “It’s a Beautiful Evening,” which I know only from Dorothy Dandridge’s 1961 version for Verve with Oscar Peterson?
But I said I was ambivalent, and here’s why: the stuff sans strings is worth raving about, and some of the material is as tantalizingly obscure. “Take Me in Your Arms,” for example, is a torch song recorded by Ruth Etting in 1932 (and written by Fred Markush and Mitchell Parrish, rather than the team credited here); Pelt and Miller take it uptempo and swing the hell out of it. Technique is abundant among young soloists today, and Pelt bows to no one in speed or dexterity (the best evidence here is on Pepper Adams’s “Excerent,” where his ease of articulation at a whirlwind tempo begs comparison with Clifford Brown). Depth of emotion on ballads isn’t in such ready supply, but an unaccompanied “Don’t You Know I Care” from the Ellington songbook and a duet with O’Rourke’s acoustic guitar on “This Is the Moment” (from a 1948 Betty Grable flick, for crying out loud) proves that Pelt has it to spare. On first listen, Close to My Heart invites the question of whether we really need independent jazz labels for albums without originals or extended blowing. Yet this is finally a better showcase for Pelt than those two imports, where he was one soloist in a string of them.
Along with originals by himself and pianist Frank Kimbrough, Horton’s Subtextures includes one piece each by Chopin, Messiaen, and Andrew Hill. None the wiser, you might not guess that the Chopin and Messiaen were from the classical repertoire: after being lovingly stated, they buoy floating improvisations like something by Herbie Hancock or Wayne Shorter (which the Messiaen sort of resembles). If anything, Kimbrough’s “Rumors” sounds more “classical” by virtue of its Bach-like theme-and-variations. On these as well as Horton’s “Malaby,” “Ruminations,” and “Subtextures,” drummer Matt Wilson rushes ahead of the beat so nobody else has to, kind of the way Tony Williams did with Miles Davis—though reflective and deliberately paced, Horton’s furled solos convey great urgency. Wilson and bassist Ben Allison keep things moving smoothly even on Hill’s “Cantarnos,” a tricky, Latin-accented piece with a long, churning melodic line over broken eighth notes. Horton has a full, lovely tone that can turn saw-toothed as the tune demands, and the frequent trumpet-and-piano unisons on the theme statements are a nice touch—all the more so because he and Kimbrough are so perfectly in tune figuratively as well as musically. Subtextures is state-of-the-art, and if it doesn’t bring wider attention to Horton, I don’t know what can.
Before dashing for the airport, Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint concealed in my carry-on, I also feel obliged to recommend Hugh Ragin’s Revelation. You may remember Ragin from his bolting solos with Roscoe Mitchell and David Murray in the ’80s. More recently, a teaching gig in Colorado has been keeping him out of New York, and Revelation has what I suspect is a hidden pedagogical agenda. Ragin and his pianoless quartet—with bassist William Parker, drummer Hamid Drake, and tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Assif Tsahar—give what amount to a survey course in free jazz, with special emphasis on early Ornette Coleman (trumpet and sax match pitch, then hit it on “Restoration Intensive”), Albert Ayler (on “The Battlefield,” Tsahar’s lurching bass clarinet hints at free jazz’s dark side and Ragin makes like Donald Ayler with chops), and the AACM (a bit of spontaneous sound sculpture on “Skull Hill”). None of it sounds derivative, because Ragin’s compositions bounce with glee and his solos jump with as many ideas as they do unusual intervals.
Now, time to hail a taxi.