Do bass players make better jazz records? Back in 2000, the under-rated bassist John Goldsby released Viewpoint,
and I haven't stopped listening to it since. There's no denying the consistent glories of William Parker's recent run on record. And for the past year Dave Holland has been redefining the way a big band can sound, making brilliant music in the process. Now comes a remarkable debut from North Carolina double bassist and composer Steve Haines... perhaps one of the finest inside/outside records of the year.
With Beginner's Mind, Haines – an accomplished musician and director of the Miles Davis Program in Jazz Studies at the University of North Carolina – has created a panoply of challenging compositions that range from powerful to beautiful. And it's not just the compositions that excite. Whether long form progressions or intimate blues, Haines' quintet is always adventurous and completely at home in his musical conception.
This is no typical jam session. The playing here is refreshingly free of clichés and ego. Take, for instance, the shimmering "Colorado" with its unforgettable sax-and-trumpet vamp and deep three-note bridge. This might be the best hard bop song of the year. Tenor saxophonist David Lown blows with superb invention as he explores deep corners within the wide harmonics of the song. Pianist Chip Crawford offers percussive counterpoint to Lown's progressively intense passages and drummer Tom Taylor really sets things on fire. By the time they reprise the bridge, you're ready to hear it all over again.
While the Haines quintet appears to have emerged fully formed, they actually played together in a well-regarded combo called the One O'Clock Lab Band. Their telepathy is apparent on "Shoshin," which features unexpected entry points for the soloists and unique changes in tempo. There's nothing predictable about the improvisational workout "Stronger Than Dirt," either. Trumpeter Rob Smith fires off sharp Lee Morgan-style attacks and Crawford displays incredible speed and technique, throwing in surprising chord substitutions and angular phrases. The driving composition "The North Shore" possesses the same mysterious qualities of some of Wayne Shorter's mid-sixties work and the up-tempo reworking of "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" is a real gem.
Through it all, Haines' supple pizzicato phrasing conveys great emotion and effectively sparks momentum. But even more worthy of praise is his willingness to shun the spotlight and let the songs stretch out organically.
Beginner's Mind is a sparkling effort. Too often, ensembles like these are victims of attrition. One can only hope that this is the first of many to come from the Steve Haines Quintet.
Personnel: Steve Haines: double bass.
David Lown: tenor saxophone.
Chip Crawford: piano.
Tom Taylor: drums.