Adam Niewood and his Rabble Rousers
Epic Journey Volumes 1 and 2

Epic Journey Volumes 1 and 2

Review by Brad Walseth

Don't be fooled by the name; this is no retro Dixieland band, but instead a stellar group of cutting-edge musicians in the NYC area, recruited by saxophonist/composer Adam Niewood to perform his exceptional compositions, as well as engage in compelling free form improvisations. Nor are these last-minute jobbers; the line-up includes the musicians with whom Niewood has been working with for the last several years. The familiarity with the material has allowed this fine group of players to really delve into the intricacies of the complex arrangements and makes this release an obvious cut above so many recordings, where the musicians walk in and play the date cold. The results are startling and make this effort a must-have and one of the best efforts of 2008. Niewood is the son of industry woodwind pro and Chuck Mangione saxophonist Gerry Niewood (and his classically-trained mother, Gurly), whose early youth included accompanying his father on world tours with artists like Simon and Garfunkel and Liza Minelli. He plays tenor, C-melody, soprano, alto and baritone saxes on this recording, and this is no stunt: he sounds great on all of them. He is joined by a group of whom probably the best known is keyboardist Kristjan Randalu, with other members being: guitarist Jesse Lewis, bassists Matt Brewer and Chris Higgins, and drummers Rohin Khemani and Greg Ritchie. On Volume I (subtitled "Based on a True Story"), the players appear in different configurations designated appropriately to produce Niewood's compositions, while on Volume II, Brewer switches to electric bass and all of the musicians engage together in (mostly) free group improvisation.

The composed music is modern post-bop of a highly engaging style that at times calls to mind some of the other NYC-based music that has been amazing us of late (David Binney, Hans Glawishnig). Niewood's solos are post-Coltrane, confident, strong and fantastically creative, and sure to please all fans of the saxophone; but he is no spotlight hog, allowing his fellow artists to contribute, and they come through brilliantly (Lewis' "Mellow Drama," the hip "Where's the Cat") to the intense ("Not Quite Right") and diabolical ("Child Psychology") and epic ("Out of the Woods, for Now") and there are tricks (rapid unison lines, time changes) aplenty to keep jaded modern jazz listeners enthralled.

The free form improvisations on Volume II are as exciting as the compositions, revealing a group of musicians with both the chops and ears to play with one another. "Entirely Too Tonal" (one of two composed pieces) starts things pumping with the band in high gear and Niewood shredding and soaring to supersonic heights. The turn to the free form on "Movin' and Groovin'"reveals a sound reminiscent of "Bitches Brew-"era Miles, but a bit less overtly funky and more melodious. With two bassists and two drummers, this easily could turn into a cacophonous mess, but clearly the musicians involved are on the same page, and the improvisations sound "worked out" (in the best sense). Randalu is certainly in his element here, showing a firm grasp of improvisation skills on the keyboard, but all parties display admirable patience and empathy on quiet pieces like the haunting "Loved Ones." Avant garde, but not "intellectual" or outside to the point of pain, Niewood stretches the boundaries for modern jazz without obliterating them, and it is an exhilarating tightrope to walk with him.

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