From the opening strains of Polygon, pianist/composer Mike Bardash’s remarkable new Rhombus Records CD, the listener will be fully aware that an exciting and unpredictable journey lies ahead. A pianist of consummate artistry, Bardash’s playing is placed totally within the context of the music, which showcases his extraordinarily imaginative vision as a composer. Ten of the eleven compositions are Bardash originals and contain a broad palette of modern jazz expression within each highly distinctive piece. Funky and straight ahead hard bop, soul jazz, structured avant-garde, and solid blowing are all flavors in this magical stew of creativity and adventure.
Although rooted in that progressive hard bop and beyond mode of the tradition that has made the Blue Note sound so timeless, the music on Polygon is fully of the moment and never allows looking back to stand in the way of looking forward. Mike’s compositions are in constant motion - changing textures, shifting time signatures and altering moods in an organically evolving structure that tells vivid stories and creates an ideal canvas for the soloists.
Bardash has assembled an exemplary group of musicians for this music, locking the framework in place with a longtime collaborator, the brilliant bassist Gene Torres, along with the dynamic rhythms of drummer Tony Lewis. The powerful frontline consists of trumpeter Kenyatta Beasley and another longtime Bardash colleague, Deji Coker on tenor sax and flute. All of the musicians are fully informed in the various stylistic elements and totally in command as they traverse the challenging music, telling compelling stories as they take the journey. The full-bodied sounds of both hornmen and the no-nonsense dynamism of Mike’s piano playing create a huge sound that often makes the quintet sound like a larger ensemble – ideally suited to this music. And while the music unquestionably stretches boundaries and pursues the adventurous, it never abandons the essence of musicality that is always front and center.
Seven of the highly imaginative Bardash originals are woven together into The Polygon Suite that comprises more than half of the album. But the four pieces that precede it set the tone perfectly. These include the one non-Bardash item, D’s Blues, written by Coker. A hard-boppish blues over a sprightly walking bass, it has a jocular, lopsided feel that is downright Monkish. Fluidly swinging piano, tenor and trumpet solos highlight this short and sweet foray.
Fiery exuberance is the key to Impulse, an explosive take-no-prisoners excursion of tension-filled arcing lines in an upward spiral. The scintillating rhythm section play sets off virile tenor and trumpet solos and a vigorous piano solo of cascading runs and thunderous block chords, then closes with an exceptionally musical drum solo.
An easier, but no less emphatic mood is created on the funk-fest Brass Tacks, which opens the album – strikingly syncopated and darkly luminous in the manner reminiscent of Andrew Hill’s approach to funky hard bop. Fueled by Torres’ throbbing electric bass and Lewis’s infectious backbeat, there are soul-drenched solos by Torres, a Lee Morgan-ish Beasley and Coker’s raunchy tenor that lead into an unexpectedly rubato turn by Bardash that still manages to evoke the spirit of Bobby Timmons within its free context.
An entirely different vibration is achieved with Late in the Game, an atmospheric, dramatic piece rooted by deep wood bass, freely punctuating piano, shimmering cymbals and dulcet malletry. There is a distinct cinematic feeling as the musicians paint a portrait that shifts between serenity and turbulence, but always focused on beauty.
The Polygon Suite is launched with Kenny’s Klave, full of surprises and unpredictable twists and turns, with the fervently inventive percussion of Bongo Bruno adding special color on this track. Primarily veering between free-bop and unabashedly Latin rhythms, the context shifts, twists, flows and dissolves in an ever changing narrative. An arresting trumpet solo and rollicking tenor adds to the mix. 10 to 12 follows with its rapid-fire, boldly sinuous theme fueled by a perfectly unified rhythm section. Punchy tenor, fluid trumpet and an edgy, rhythmic and adventurous piano solo are highlights. A highly dramatic shift kicks in with the third movement, And then What (arranged by Coker). A poignant ballad, the probing piece is layered over a sumptuous pillow provided by the rhythm section. Exquisitely crafted and impeccably delivered, what could have been solemn is transformed into a message of hope and uplifting substance, posing important questions and seeking enlightened answers. Leading Edge, a brief gentle rubato electric piano aperitif introduces Around the Edges. Also arranged by Coker, this is a jaunty smoldering groover built on an ostinato electric piano/bass vamp and playful backbeat, and features trumpet and flute in the unison lines. A sprightly piano turn leads into Coker’s full-bodied flute solo that occasionally evokes Rahsaan. Trailing Edge, a very short electric piano romp melds into Sugar High Rondo, which closes the suite. A briskly punctuated theme stoked by nicely syncopated rhythms throughout provide the structure for a muscular, confrontational tenor solo that leads into a spectacular collective improv climax and the closing theme that brings this marvelous album to its conclusion.
For those who feel that contemporary jazz has lost the fire, urgency, jubilation and innovation of the earlier traditions, Polygon will be a delightful reminder that those classic traditions of this great art form are still alive and well.