On his third album, drummer Curtis Nowosad celebrates his move from Winnipeg, Manitoba to New York, N.Y. by updating his sound. Where his first two albums were solidly straight-ahead, applying a hard-bop aesthetic even to pop tunes such as Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” this one is slick and fusion-edged—not quite smooth jazz, but not far removed either.
Two things keep the album’s polish and pop instincts from overpowering the music. First, Nowosad doesn’t seem much interested in writing groove-based, easily digestible ear candy, preferring instead to hold on to the complex harmonies and chromatic melodicism of his earlier albums. Apart from a pair of vocal numbers featuring singer Brianna Thomas—Skip James’ “Hard Times Killing Floor Blues” and Nina Simone’s “See Line Woman,” both of which get pop-friendly treatments—the jazz content is generally high. (And what kind of smooth jazz act would have titles like “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” and “Never Forget What They Did to Fred Hampton”?)
Which brings us to point the second: Nowosad consistently pushes his players to go the extra distance and stretch boundaries. Even though the melody to “Fred Hampton” sounds ultra-relaxed thanks to the way Nowosad’s arrangement voices Duane Eubanks’ trumpet, Andrew Renfroe’s guitar, and Corey Wallace’s trombone, the music immediately heats up once the solos start. It isn’t just that Eubanks takes an aggressive, Freddie Hubbard-style approach to his solo, or that Renfroe cranks the distortion for his; in both cases, you can hear Nowosad pushing and prodding, keeping the music from falling into anyone’s comfort zone. With drive like that, it will be interesting to see where he ends up going.