by Troy Collins, Point of Departure

Greg Ward’s latest offering, Stomping Off From Greenwood, is as eclectic as it is electric – a far cry from his previous acoustic endeavor. The alto saxophonist’s prior effort for Greenleaf Records, 2016’s Touch My Beloved’s Thought, was based on Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (Impulse! Records, 1963). Ward’s reinterpretation was widely acclaimed, not least for its incorporation of a ballet company, as Mingus originally intended. This recording spotlights a new band, Rogue Parade, featuring guitarists Matt Gold and Dave Miller, along with Chicago regulars Matt Ulery on contrabass and Quin Kirchner on drums. Reinforcing the album’s local flavor, the cover art depicts the gritty graffiti of urban bohemia, establishing a direct connection to Greenwood Street on the south side of Chicago, where Ward lived when he returned home from a stint in New York.

Rogue Parade is the outgrowth of a jamming fellowship that Ward founded for “those who don’t hate, but appreciate.” The ensemble’s mélange of funk, r&b, hip hop, and jazz embodies all the hallmarks of new music from the Windy City, bolstered by the captivating flow of Ward’s tuneful writing. Plangent melodies, contrapuntal harmonies and propulsive polyrhythms all conspire to make a unified statement, but it’s the rhythm section that truly drives this music; Kirchner’s shimmering cymbals and roiling snare exhilarate, while Ulery holds down the bottom end. Ward’s tone can be sweet or sour as the need arises, although there’s no doubting the authority of his lyrical phrasing; simple and direct are assets in Ward’s capable hands. He also arranges Gold and Miller’s parts into extensions of his own. The guitarists’ use of effects is subtle but apt, adding soaring sustain to Ward’s euphonious themes while contributing washes of color, melodic support, and individual solos.

Ward makes a languid entrance on the rousing “Metropolis,” as the band shifts from a fleet opening gambit into a dynamic, tension-filled breakdown. The twin guitars ebb and flow in cool contrast to Kirchner’s whiplash drumming, providing harmonious counterpoint. The quintet also swings hard on “The Contender,” with punchy bass, nimble fretwork and Ward’s nervy alto reaching a bristling climax. A sonic portrait of his favorite boxing combinations, Ward’s opening improvisation is phrased in quick jabs, with Gold’s subsequent solo adopting the leader’s spry technique. Conversely, Ulery introduces “Black Woods” unaccompanied until the theme materializes, with Ward and Miller initiating an enthralling dialogue that culminates in bustling group interplay. Diverging even further, “The Fourth Reverie” takes on an experimental sheen as a pointillist tone poem composed of ruminative ensemble interjections.

Nuanced performances by the group on a handful of ballads demonstrate restraint and versatility, illustrating Ward’s inclusive take on the genre as the band moves between tradition and innovation. On the darkly melodious “Pitch Black Promenade,” the gentleness of alto and rhythm guitar rises above the clatter of percussion and bass, maintaining euphony even as the piece grows in intensity. A lilting cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” finds Ward at his most romantic, despite Kirchner’s propulsive beat, while the guitarists shadow the leader’s free-ranging improvisation with heartrending results. In the end, trilling guitars and muffled drums accompany Ward on “Sundown” as the closing tune rises to a fevered pitch.

Accessible but adventurous, Stomping Off From Greenwood is the latest indication of Ward’s growth as a bandleader, composer, and improviser. Imbued with the exploratory fervor of Chicago’s finest, Rogue Parade gracefully negotiates the tenuous divide between progressive jazz and the city’s current avant-rock scene. The band’s deportment – tight yet free-ranging, melodious but expressively dissonant, with punchy rhythms and ecstatic harmonies – is par for the course in this town. It’s Ward’s magnanimous contributions to the whole that elevate this date above the rest.

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