By John Kelman
It's been four years since saxophonist Mark Lockheart's best-of-year Moving Air (Basho, 2005). Contrasting Moving Air's organic multi-tracking, In Deep goes for purer in-the-moment territory, with a traditional trumpet/sax/piano/bass/drums quintet that's anything but conventional.
Lockheart's ability to evoke a multiplicity of images with his music has been a marker with groups including his 11-piece Scratch Band and the Big Idea sextet that he formed to perform the more complex layering of Moving Air. On In Deep he proves that he is still a compelling composer, but the emphasis here is on playing, and he couldn't have chosen better partners, especially pianist Liam Noble. Whether in duet with drummer Dave Smith on the miniature, form-driven but free-blowing opener, "Stairway," or with the entire quintet on the expansive 10-minute workout of "Surfacing," there's an energy to the group and writing that may avoid harsh extremes, but remains exciting and filled with unpredictability.
The line-up may suggest mainstream, but this is no straight-ahead session. Smith's relentless pulse on "Surfacing," which bolsters Noble's arpeggio-driven backdrop for Lockheart and trumpeter Dave Priseman's unforgettable theme, is as modern as it comes, with its hint of e.s.t.-style backbeat. But when the song's serpentine theme has finished, the quintet dissolves into unexpected freedom that gradually reassumes time while Noble delivers an early solo highlight, brimming with energy that's driven by Jasper Holby's pulsing bass. As impressive as Lockheart was on Moving Air, his playing has become even more muscular, combining the late Michael Brecker's visceral power with his own kind of tension-and-release.
The group doesn't entirely eschew tradition; Lockheart's "Golden People" swings along amiably but in start-and-stop fashion, and again dissolves into open-ended free play as Noble sets a brooding foundation for Lockheart's brief but implication-filled solo. Episodic, with a new, balladic feel and haunting melody, it's a lead-in to a plunger-assisted solo from Priseman that's vocal in timbre but, with the rhythm section telepathically intertwined, impressive in long-form construction.
Noble is featured alone on the dark-hued "Falling," a collaborative composition with Lockheart, while the quirkily funky "Snakeout" is a spontaneous composition by Lockheart, Noble, Holby and Smith. The balance of In Deep focuses on Lockheart's writing; never one to overstay his welcome, "Snakeout" is followed by the more persistently propulsive and through-composed "Nutter," with a complex bass line and staggered theme that leads to some brief but energizing in tandem soloing from Priseman and Lockheart. As rich as the writing, the sequencing is also perfect, as "Nutter" leads to the somewhat more subdued closer, "Sunday soon," where Lockheart's ability to create an almost woody sound from his metal horn sets up his more sinewy solo, lithely navigating a series of changes that in other hands might lose the lyrical potential that this saxophonist always succeeds in finding.
In Deep is a welcome return from a saxophonist who continues to make great music that's as distinctly written as it is performed. A larger audience wouldn't be out of order for an album that possesses a different focus than the superb Moving Air, but is equally impressive.
Track listing: Stairway; Surfacing; Golden People; Undercovers; Believe It Or Not; Not In My Name; Falling; Sand Into Gold; Snakeout; Nutter; Sunday soon.
Personnel: Mark Lockheart: saxophone; Dave Priseman: trumpet; Liam Noble: piano; Jasper Holby: bass; Dave Smith: drums.