This review appears in the February 2011 issue of All About Jazz-New York.
The title Empire could lead one to think that bassist Scott Colley’s seventh album is an artistic comment on foreign policy. In fact, Empire is a now-vanished town in Kansas where Colley’s great-great-grandfather, Joseph J. Colby, settled in the early 1870s. The town, bypassed by an important new railroad, was abandoned by 1880 and is now “nothing more than crop fields and grass,” according to Amy Bickel, who wrote about Colley and Empire for the Kansas periodical The Hutchinson News.
On some level, then, Empire is an Americana project, and guitarist Bill Frisell proves the ideal partner. (He’s also sideman to Kermit Driscoll, another bassist-bandleader, on Driscoll’s new album Reveille.) Of course, the Frisell sound is identifiable right away — chiming harmonics, bent but lustrous chords and subtle electronic tweaks evoking wide and eerie landscapes — and yet Colley’s writing retains its own strong character. It helps that Colley shuffles his personnel, adding or omitting Frisell, trumpeter Ralph Alessi and pianist Craig Taborn along the way to enhance the session’s variety.
Colley’s most hard-nosed writing comes on the first two tracks, “January” and “The Gettin Place,” where he deploys Frisell and Alessi at bold, jutting angles and sets up the tightest asymmetric grooves. Taborn doesn’t appear until the fourth track, “5:30 am,” his singing lyricism set against the churning, elastic rhythm of drummer Brian Blade. Taborn remains for “Speculation,” a piano trio piece with something of a floating, Tony Williams-Wayne Shorter vibe. It’s rich to hear Frisell and Taborn, on separate tracks, dealing with Colley’s harmonic concepts in analogous ways.
Frisell returns for a duo with Colley, “Tomorrowland,” a dissonant sketch that brilliantly captures the mood of the album cover (an ancient photo of Colby and family outside their Empire, Kansas home). Later, “Gut” finds Alessi in another duo with the leader. Then the full band convenes, for the first and only time, on the slow-swinging “Five-Two.” Frisell, Taborn and Alessi take it out as a trio on “Five-Two.2,” which functions as a spooky coda.
Colley’s own bass role is assertive: He’s a melodic ensemble voice and a frequent soloist. But it’s his instincts about pacing and dynamics that make Empire worth exploring in depth.