Darren Barrett is nothing if not adventurous. Leader of the dB Quintet, Energy In Motion, dB-ish, and dB Treyo and a professor in the Ensemble Department at his Boston alma mater Berklee College of Music, the trumpeter has issued albums honouring the Bee Gees and Amy Winehouse, and performed and recorded with everyone from Esperanza Spalding and Common to Elvin Jones and Herbie Hancock. The winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition for Trumpet in 1997, Barrett initiated his recording career two years later with First One Up. Fast-forward eighteen years to The Opener, an electric affair that feels like the start of a new chapter for the Grammy Award winner. A purposeful blend of acoustic instruments and synthesis, samples, and soundscapes, the set plays like a fresh riff on experimental jazz, and while there are moments here that remind one a little bit of Miles’s Amandla period, Barrett largely carves out his own sound on the eight-track collection.
The tunes are carefully structured, but to maximize the talents of his players—saxophonists Clay Lyons and Erena Terakubo, keyboardists Santiago Bosch and Chad Selph, bassist Alexander Toth, drummer Anthony Toth, percussionist Judith Barrett, and guesting on a track apiece Kurt Rosenwinkel and Nir Felder—Barrett’s also ensured a good amount of room for improvisation has been worked into the material. Though the guitarists receive special billing, it’s the ensemble playing that brings the album to life.
“The Opener” embodies the dB-ish vibe in weaving echoplexed treatments and samples in amongst unison, fanfare-like figures by Terakubo and Barrett and a breezy piano solo by Bosch. Echoes of M-Base surface when the Toths stoke an intricate, slippery groove alongside neon-lit synth smears and a spirited solo turn by Rosenwinkel. Mysterioso synth effects tickle the ear at the outset of “Beauty On Beauty,” but it’s Lyons’ rousing and rather Coltrane-esque sax motif and Barrett’s full-bodied emoting that make the biggest impact. The leader chooses his solo spots carefully, and when they appear his obvious facility on the horn elevates the proceedings, whether he’s purring softly (“Don’t You Know I Love You”) or braying boppishly (“Full Tilt”). It’s not uncommon in this context for acoustic piano and Moog solos to rub shoulders and feel like the most natural thing in the world.
Barrett and company dim the lights for the romantic languour of “Don’t You Know I Love You,” and the pairing of the trumpeter’s caressing tone with the luscious backdrop makes for one of the album’s most appealing performances. As strong is the vibrant “Different,” which sees the outfit digging into a steamy, Latin-driven groove with no small amount of enthusiasm. A bit of samba swing also eases its way into “Throughout,” as does a vestige of early fusion in its utilization of old synths like the Prophet 5 and Oberheim Xpander. Truth be told, there are moments where effects surface that feel unnecessary—voice interjections such as the ones that occur within “dB-lemma” (“Yeah”) and “Full Tilt” (“Just a second”), for example—but for the most part Barrett’s fusion of electronic and acoustic sounds succeeds, and his attempt to invigorate existing forms comes across as both smart and sincere.