Greg Ward’s last album, Touch My Beloved’s Thought, used Charles Mingus’ classic The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady as a jumping-off point. The record was a standout of 2016, showcasing the alto saxophonist’s creativity as composer and bandleader. This time around Ward finds inspiration from within, tapping his own eclectic sensibility to produce this acoustic-electric gem.
The Chicago-based Ward assembled a quintet drawing from the city’s deep creative-music well: the rhythm section of drummer Quin Kirchner and bassist Matt Ulery, audacious composers and bandleaders themselves, and guitarists Dave Miller and Matt Gold. The unique lineup allows Ward to blur the boundaries of progressive jazz, post-rock and experimental electronic music. Propulsive rhythms and hints of prog rock drive the opener “Metropolis.” Ward guides a soaring, anthemic melody, while in the more contemplative passages, the twin guitar lines emanate a hazy reverie. The standout “Black Woods” gradually builds intensity from its chamber-like melody over the course of eight minutes.
Ward never fails to incorporate strong melodies, whether his compositions require navigating tricky meters (“The Contender”) or working within a stripped-down framework (listen to how the group builds off the single-note vamp of “Let Him Live”). The lone non-original piece is a take on Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parrish’s “Stardust.” A well-worn tune if ever there was one, here it’s thoroughly imbued with the group’s Catholic aesthetic. Miller and Gold’s twangy guitar lines lend an air of Bill Frisell-style Americana, while Ward’s piercing wails in the upper register wring out an emotional intensity on top of Kirchner’s skittering pulse. Group interaction is largely at the forefront, but Ward’s solos throughout are bold statements of fluid economy.
From beginning to end, Ward and company have pulled off a work that’s as immensely pleasurable as it is conceptually daring.