Liner Notes: “Soul,” Jeremy Pelt (High Note Records, Jan. 31, 2012)

When Jeremy Pelt debuted his first ballads collection nearly a decade ago in 2003, the music community hailed the strong voice with which his arrangements had interpreted uncommon odes to troubled romance and strange dreams. The album, “Close To My Heart,” was cited as evidence of the bright future that lay ahead for him, even though at the time, critics had yet to witness the breadth of his inventiveness and originality.

Six albums later, Pelt has surpassed those early expectations. His cerebral adventurousness has, since then, consistently distilled a dark beauty out of a wide range of concepts. On the fourth recording with his working quintet — J.D. Allen on tenor sax, pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Gerald Cleaver – Pelt tackles an exploration of modern and classic ballads and blues, most of which are original compositions, all of which reinvigorate the archetypes with passion and richly textured soulfulness.

“I feel I have arrived at my own identity in terms of the way I interpret songs,” says Pelt, who penned all of the album’s material except “Sweet Rita Suite, Pt. 2: Her Soul” and “Moondrift.”

Here, that identity is expressed in his expansive illustrations of the essence of a blues and that of a ballad. In the course of eight stirring pieces, excursions into moments of unexpected harmonic resolution or mid-song, elongated blues forms allow the quintet to reorient its listeners’ assumptions.

As these concepts meld, a dramatic new creation is born, played out in the group’s synchronized interplay. On the homage to Sleepy Hollow’s lovelorn schoolteacher, Ichibad Crane, for example, the piano’s bluesy fills and confident swing ultimately succumb to an ominous pair of horns.

Throughout the album, Pelt and Allen reinforce one another, drawing on four years of contrapuntal bandstand experience. Often, the horns themselves suggest a human connection, in the same way that a ballad might deal with a union between two people or a blues might evoke a sense of loss. On tracks like “The Story,” the appearance of a unison horn line precedes a pair of solos. But the players’ voices blend so strikingly when played together that its memory lingers, even as they embark on solo journeys.

Meanwhile, the indefatigable rhythm section of Burno, Cleaver and Grissett provides a host of lush textures that are central to the album’s goal. Cleaver’s drums test the limits of expected rhythmic frameworks, Burno’s bass lines bounce from swinging to spiritual to driving and Grissett is as comfortable out front as he is shading in more subtle layers of a piece.

At other times, what’s not said is as important as what is. Pelt articulates his ideas with brevity and precision. Each bar seems to hold within it a meaningful key to the overall lyrical arc of the song – and he monitors this. At the Brooklyn recording session for “Soul” in September 2011, the band nailed most of the tracks on the first take, an effect of lingering adrenaline from having recently performed the material live in Chicago. But when their burning rendition of “Story” ran over eight minutes, Pelt suggested they rein themselves in with a shorter version. That kind of self-editing helps shape a body of recorded work in which listeners are hard-pressed to find an extraneous note distracting the path of a tune from its opening to its climax to its conclusion.

Philadelphia-based guest vocalist Joanna Pascale sings with a similar reverence for musical economy. Her voice brims with soulfulness on the more traditional love song, “Moondrift,” yet no embellishments cloud her sparingly rendered vibrato. Pelt, too, is emotive without excess sentimentality on the track, imbuing his part instead with a personalized depth that speaks volumes more than mere nostalgia.

Where “Moondrift” retains a sense of romanticism, George Cables’ “Sweet Rita” is performed with a dark tension that deviates from the composer’s most recent recording of the tune. Like Pelt’s originals, each ballad explores new angles on what defines the blues.

In part, of course, what defines both ballads and the blues is human emotion and inter-connectedness. Pelt notes that it was the band’s intention “to be as honest as possible” with this music and with each other as they performed it, hence their selection of so many first and second takes. As the artists launch into “The Tempest,” for example, their image of nature’s effect on the human soul echoes that of a rainstorm, where multiple droplets attack the earth together, creating sheets of wetness. In this case, each member of the band engages with one another so completely that their parts feel intrinsically connected. While the listener won’t see Pelt’s headphones come off for a solo, or Cleaver’s perpetual motion over his kit, that kind of physicality shapes the spiritual core of these eight emotive pieces, just as it shaped the musicians’ playing in the studio.

“Soul” opens up the definitions of ballads and blues to include those ideas that may not fit within a paradigm but rather, are inspired by one. The approach marks a moment of maturity in Pelt’s self-expression — and in the band’s symbiosis.

The result, in Pelt’s words, “is a reflection of our collective musical soul.”

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