Thematically, the debut album by Dan Bruce’s beta collective is informed by the relationship between order and chaos, and the tension that arises when the two combine. In the Chicago-based guitarist’s own words, Earthshine explores the “significance of entwining deftly composed music with free improvisation, while constantly incorporating expansive and driving grooves.” That turns out to be a fairly good description of the album, especially when its seven performances so seamlessly integrate through-composition and individual soloing. In terms of control, Bruce clearly gave considerable thought to the structure of his pieces (two of which push past the thirteen-minute mark) as well as to how and where the solos would appear; with respect to so-called chaos, he loosened the reins enough to ensure that Russ Johnson (trumpet), Chris Madsen (tenor saxophone), Rob Clearfield (piano/Fender Rhodes), Clark Sommers (bass), and Jon Deitemyer (drums) would have room to express themselves in their execution of Bruce’s material.
Bruce’s prowess as a guitarist is evident on the album, but he also consciously decided as the project developed through its writing, arranging, and recording stages that he would approach it as a composer first and guitarist second. As a result, the leader’s voice is emphasized little more than the others, and, in fact, a number of pieces were written with specific group members in mind.
The sextet’s full, lushly textured sound is resoundingly well-captured by the episodic title track. Bruce, Johnson, and Madsen voice the introductory theme with fanfare-like conviction while Clearfield, Sommers, and Deitemyer provide the requisite muscularity to move the material along. The first of many lyrical solos taken by Bruce on the album arrives, the guitarist prodded forcefully by the drummer’s inventive stick-work until the tempo slows, the music briefly advancing through a freer episode before resuming with a bravura spotlight by Johnson and eventually climaxing with a robust vamp. A better illustration of the marvelous balance Bruce and company strike between improvisation and compositional form would be hard to conceive.
The beta collective next expertly eases into the relaxed, vaguely R&B-inflected swing of “Reprieve: Reprise,” with Bruce following his statement of the tune’s theme with a bluesy solo that struts with just the right mount of swagger. Madsen and Bruce introduce the breezy “Lapse” with unison voicings after which the saxophonist and guitarist take explorative solo turns. The haunting “Sofa” invites comparison to the performance of Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” by Miles’s quintet on the 1968 album of the same name, especially when a descending melodic figure on “Sofa” so closely replicates a similar one on the earlier recording.
Inspired by Gerhard Richter series of Ice paintings Bruce viewed at The Art Institute of Chicago, “Ice (no.2)” sees the leader blending nylon string guitar with Fender Rhodes to memorable effect, whereas the sole non-Bruce composition, Nathan Douds’ “Major_Chord,” brings forth a more bop-styled side of the group’s playing. And don’t be thrown by the presumably tongue-in-cheek title of the closing cut: in a better world, “Greatest Hit #1” would be precisely that, given how effectively the six blend their individual voices into a sonorous whole.
This is a group that can both dial it down and ramp it up, though such shifts in dynamics never happen abruptly or awkwardly. Throughout this fine recording, the beta collective functions as a smoothly operating unit that adjusts itself according to the music’s demands. When one player steps forth, the remaining five automatically reorient themselves in such a way that maximum support is provided to the soloist. Bruce, Johnson, and Madsen contribute first-class performances throughout, Sommers and Deitemyer provide unerring support, with the drummer impressing as particularly resourceful and inventive (hear how powerfully he mobilizes the band during the closing minutes of “Ice (no.2),” for example), and Clearfield’s electric piano offers a constant enhancement to the collective sound.