Breakaway: Gregg Gelb Jazz Quartet (Gregg Gelb, saxophone/clarinet, Steve Anderson, piano, Steve Haines, bass, & Ben Jensen, drums). MG Records, available from Marsh Woodwinds or Quail Ridge Books and Music, Raleigh, NC, or online from

Gregg Gelb‘s new recording, Breakaway, is not a radical departure from the swing and bop era sensibilities that have characterized his long-standing associations with Triangle jazz mainstays the Gregg Gelb Swing Band and the Heart of Carolina Jazz Orchestra. However, it is a change of pace in moving Gelb front and center in the context of a traditional piano-based jazz quartet.

Gelb’s sound on both of his horns embodies the musical verities of the swing-to-bop period. He has a rich, rounded saxophone tone that lies in the lineage of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. His clarinet tone is clean, woody, and fluid, evoking Ellington mainstay Russell Procope. His improvisations are less concerned with flaunting their complexity and the player’s technical dexterity than logically extending the lyrical colorations of the theme.

For this outing, Gelb offers a program of seven original compositions. The melodic line of the clarinet feature, “Summer Haze,” suggests a humid, dreamy southern evening. “Boppin’ to the Mambo” is a cooking confection that provides a fine springboard for dense improvisations while retaining an infectious dancing lilt. “Funk It!” is a spacious, vampish line that liberates Gelb and the band to play with the density of their improvisations.

The ballad, “Contemplation” is a clever variation on Duke Ellington’s classic theme, “What Am I Here For?” The tune’s slow tempo gives the listener an opportunity to luxuriate in Gelb’s full, rich tone. Invoking an Ellington theme can be perilous for a tenor saxophonist, as it conjures the ghosts of Ellington orchestra mainstays Webster and Paul Gonsalves, but Gelb rises to the occasion, avoiding flash and offering an eloquent, poised set of variations.

Pianist Steve Anderson is a potent presence throughout the proceedings. His execution is always crisp, his voicings intriguing, and his improvisations consistently surprising. He has an unusual sense of space. Although he is capable of tossing off a dense, rhythmically challenging musical knot within a solo, his improvisations tend to breathe freely, dancing with a wide variety of emotive colorations. His solo on ”All Day All Night” is intriguing and cleverly paced, building in complexity, cleverly varying density and tone over a surprisingly compact sonic space. On”Summer Haze” his solo stretches itself out across the bars as if to suspend time, embodying and emphasizing the languorous feel of the theme. Check out his comping on this tune, where he colors, feeds, and offers intriguing counterpoint to the solos of the leader and the bassist. On “Boppin’ the Mambo” Anderson offers dancing lines and a lilting swing that interlocks nicely with the finely detailed stick work of the drummer.

The band is rounded out with bassist Steve Haines and drummer Ben Jensen. The rhythm mates serve the session rather than calling attention to themselves. Haines offers propulsive support to the proceedings. His swing is sure but unobtrusive. Jensen is a fine colorist, who tastefully contributes throughout the disc.

Note: It is a great honor to welcome distinguished jazz writer (and former Spectator colleague) Stan H. Dick to the pages of CVNC.