by Kevin Press, Bad Press

That piano-and-electric-guitar opening may sound like the next in a long line of post-rock releases, but don’t be put off. Chase Baird’s first as a bandleader since 2010’s Crosscurrent is all jazz. It is warm, energetic and packed with spectacular performances. The 31-year-old American is for real.

Baird plays with a rich, full-bodied sound that doesn’t so much dominate the recording as set its pace. He’s joined here – more than capably – by Nir Felder on guitar, Brad Mehldau on piano, Dan Chmielinski on bass and Antonio Sánchez on drums.

Felder has played with Esperanza Spalding, Jack DeJohnette and Meshell Ndegeocello. Mehldau won a string of Down Beat Readers Poll piano awards in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2011, and 2012. Along the way, he also picked up the Montreal International Jazz Festival’s Miles Davis Prize. Chmielinski has performed with a host of artists, including Wynton Marsalis. Sánchez was a member of one of Pat Metheny’s famed trios with Christian McBride.

It’s hard to believe their front man is just barely out of his twenties. The Juilliard graduate grew up around music; his father was a trumpet player and instrument collector. Baird picked up the sax at 10, and had entered into a mentoring relationship with Michael Brecker just four years later.

A Life Between is a jazz record that will appeal to both traditionalists and avant-gardists. The compositions are spacious enough to accommodate multiple virtuoso performances. But this work is very clearly composed.

The album’s notes describe two periods of writing. The first produced “Ripcord,” “As You Are” and “A Life Between.” These three were penned shortly before and after Baird landed in New York in 2010. Nothing about them suggest the lack of confidence or vision that artists normally exhibit in their formative years.

But it didn’t come easily. That early burst of creativity was followed by five long years of no new compositions. When he finally did get back to it, the rest of A Life Between would take another two years to get down on paper. The album closes with Robert Schumann’s “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai.”

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