Album review…Bennett Paster, “Relentless Pursuit of the Beautiful” (Self-Produced, 2012)

In his latest recording, pianist and composer Bennett Paster presides over a diverse and highly enjoyable collection of engaging compositions that continually evolve and excite. Through well composed ensemble sections, solid group chemistry, and highly proficient individual performances, Paster constructs an album that sounds fresh, entertaining, and spontaneous.

Relentless Pursuit of the Beautiful, self-produced, 2012. Personnel: Bennett Paster, piano; Joel Frahm, tenor saxophone; Tim Armacost, tenor and soprano saxophones; Alex Pope Norris, trumpet; Gregory Ryan, bass; Willard B. Dyson, Jr., drums; Gilad, percussion. Tracks: A Penny for Kenny; Homecoming; Scraper; Harmonia Mundi; Suspicious Fishes and Quiches; Once Astray; Lewinparie; Endgame; Bash into Spring. Recorded July 20, 2011, at Benny’s Wash n’ Dry Studio, Brooklyn, NY.

The first track, “A Penny for Kenny,” is the album’s hard swinging introduction, giving space to the featured soloists on the album. Especially noteworthy here are the blend among the horn players in the unison melody, Paster’s arrangement of different feels, and the empathetic chemistry among all the musicians in the group. Alex Pope Norris performs an engaging solo balanced between a sophisticated harmonic approach and a dynamic range of expression. Paster’s first solo is understated and brief, hinting at what will unfold over the whole album. The next track “Homecoming” is a comforting ballad driven by a tension between forward motion and contemplative relaxation. Paster shows off a bit more of his pianistic skills in his improvisation here. The track pushes forward and evolves further in a C section that opens up to an improvisatory exchange between Armacost and Norris before returning to the melody.

Joel Frahm, one of the most compelling and highly regarded tenor saxophonists around, announces his strong presence on the album through a solid solo at the front end of “Scraper,” a straight-ahead, swing tune that also features repeated vamp for Willard B. Dyson, Jr.’s first solo of the album. “Harmonia Mundi” (“The Harmony of the World”) showcases Paster’s skills for writing compositions as vehicles for improvisation and ensemble work. Paster’s piano solo on this track is varied, diverse, and adept: what begins as a densely chorded melody in the introduction later expands into a rich series of harmonic substitutions overlaid on top of the tune’s changes. The improvised exchange between Frahm and Armacost is one of the album’s high points.

“Suspicious Fishes and Quiches” presents the band in a fun and humorous light. This bluesy, hard swinging romp features a surprising unison hit that punctuates the hard-bop melody. Norris’s strong, far-ranging trumpet solo first lays back in the groove and then sails over it, egging the rhythm section onto more intense levels. Once again Paster’s composition brings out the best in the soloists: the chromatic chord changes give the song’s effortless and light vibe a substantive depth, while presenting the musicians with a vast array of possibilities for elevating their solos. Keeping with the tune’s mood, Paster digs into the piano more during his solo, mixing groove-oriented licks with noisy, percussive keyboard bombs and flurries. Dyson Jr. shines in a supporting role, setting up and building anticipation for all the soloists and the ensemble unison figures. The ballad “Once Astray” then follows as a refreshing and beautiful palette cleanser, giving space to both Armacost and bassist Gregory Ryan.

The more overtly Brazilian “Lewinparie” is one of the album’s best tracks. Drawing on a wide range of expertise in Latin and Brazilian jazz, Paster writes and performs samba confidently, but very much in a modern jazz vein. The composition is propelled and enriched through the addition of percussionist Gilad and the secondary lines that Paster wrote as complements to the main melody. Along with very strong solos by Norris and Frahm, Paster shows impressive mastery and internalization of samba in his own improvisation, as well as in his comping and accompaniment. A strong metric shift (from duple to triple) in the outro with a new piano solo pushes and re-envigorates the track, propelling it to an exciting end.

Featuring Armacost on soprano saxophone, “Endgame” is a hard-hitting, more aggressive offering in which the constant group improvisation among the horn players—punctuated by Paster’s raucous fills—sounds a bit like controlled chaos. Ryan and Dyson Jr. shine here, driving the groove but responsively and creatively enlivening it with rhythmic and metric dissonance. The album ends with “Bash Into Spring,” which, like the album as a whole, features consistently excellent, intelligent, and engaging improvisation, including two more compelling performances by Norris and Frahm. It is a credit to Paster’s writing prowess that the composition, which extends for ten minutes, is continually refreshed and enlivened through an engaging arrangement fueled by both individual excellence and the group’s dynamism.

In my notes for this review, after listening to the album several times, I wrote “aesthetic beauty is subjective. The closest to the beauty that Paster looks for is honesty and integrity of an individual, aesthetic vision, realized through collaboration and enhanced through spontaneity.” It is a testament to Paster’s clarity of purpose and the entire ensemble’s excellence of execution that, in only listening to the album, I could arrive at a sentiment so close to what Paster wrote as his intent for the work: “‘The Beautiful’ to which the title refers isn’t traditional aesthetic beauty, rather it’s honest musical expression from within.  This expression forms the core of my sound.…Lately, I’ve been trying to find a way to preserve the spontaneity of improvisation in my compositions.…These particular songs come from my heart and mind, not the familiar pathways that my fingers comfortably tread when I compose at a keyboard.” Relentless Pursuit of the Beautiful is a powerful glimpse of Paster’s search for honest self-expression through original, creative artistry. On this album full of dynamic moments covering a wide range of emotions and styles, this solid ensemble date no doubt compels Paster forward toward his goal, the main payoff of which will not be an end or arrival, but the committed and compelling journey en route—a journey well worth listening to and sharing with him.

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