Neither an avant-garde terrorist nor a traditionalist bopper, Chicago trumpet veteran Malachi Thompson operates somewhere in jazz's vast middle ground. A late-'60s alumnus of the revered Association For the Advancement of Creative Music and an early member of Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy, Thompson has been able to hold his own with the top guns of left-field jazz while taking mostly successful right turns into everything from straight R&B to shimmying Latin-paced grooves. His sharp, piercing tone can knock you around or nurse you into lush comfort, while his writing makes salutatory nods to everyone from John Coltrane and Lee Morgan to his former AACM cronies. And over the course of seven fine albums for the Windy City label Delmark, Thompson's ever-changing Freebop Band has provided sterling support, propelling its leader to soaring heights with accompaniment that is alternately rambunctious and smooth and always nothing less than compelling.
So what went wrong on the new Rising Daystar? On paper it looks promising: an expanded Freebop lineup that includes trombonist Steve Berry and alto/soprano sax whiz Gary Bartz, lengthy homages to both Morgan and Coltrane, and a cover of Wayne Shorter's masterpiece "Nefertiti." What you hear, though, is a hodgepodge of mediocre straight-line bop and extended pieces that make a lot of noise while signifying next to nothing. The rearrangement of "Nefertiti" isn't bad (it's hard to screw up classic Shorter, after all), but it pales in comparison to what Thompson the interpreter did with the Ray Charles standard "Drown in My Own Tears" on the terrific 1991 album The Jaz Life. "Fanfare For Trane" and "Song For Morgan" manage to evoke their respective namesakes, but Thompson sounds for the first time almost intimidated rather than inspired by influences. The Coltrane piece is especially weak: a rumbling, rambling opus that goes nowhere, despite some fine blowing by Berry and Bartz.
Rising Daystar has its moments: The title track almost catches fire, "Mansa" contains an opening melody that lingers beautifully, and pianist Kirk Brown shines throughout the set, pulling the most from Thompson's most listless collection of songs to date. No one, though, can salvage "Surrender Your Love," a faux-Latin trifle featuring the irritating vocals of Dee Alexander. Just as she did on the title cut of Thompson's 1997 album 47th Street, Alexander shows a remarkable lack of invention or cunning, sounding instead like a cruise-ship diva on emotional autopilot. At least on 47th Street, her unctuous vocals stood out. On Rising Daystar they're just another component of an utterly disappointing outing by an artist who's proven he can do much better. -- John Floyd
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