Keith Pray's last two discs are a study in contrasts: The altoist's 2006 release One Last Stop is a bodacious set of Hammond B3 soul jazz that's supremely suitable for partying‚ while 2010's Live at the Lark Tavern showcases the awesome technical achievement that is Pray's large-unit project Big Soul Ensemble. With Confluence‚ Pray finds the sweet spot between the technological and the visceral‚ and the results should be turned up so loud‚ the neighbors go to DefCon 5.
Pray's out front right from the jump on "The Calling‚" flying sterling formation with Chuck D'Aloia's guitar before launching a burning solo that demonstrates Pray's undeniable technical prowess even as it showcases his muscle-car power. Peter Tomlinson's assertive comp is a great lead-in to a piano solo that is almost a flip side of Pray -- the emotion is undeniably there‚ but the abstruse comes out ahead of the abstract to appropriately cool things down. Lou Pappas' bass lines hold down the floor admirably‚ while Jeff "Siege" Siegel's drum fills and counters control the overall temperature with the precision of a rheostat. This is one of those opening numbers that tells you this evening's going to be a good one‚ so sit back and relax.
D'Aloia is the "plus one" in this "quartet plus one‚" a band concept that came out of Pray's chance meeting with jazz icon Joe Henderson. D'Aloia's most recent output has been restricted to Old School fusion dates that tend to disappear inside themselves‚ but when his snarling sound is put next to Pray's Y2K hard bop‚ the combination is better than peanut butter and chocolate. D'Aloia's in-the-clear opening to "Vamp for Peace" offers dark mutterings about the world's state that are a perfect set-up for Pray's optimistic pleas. D'Aloia's own "Alley Cat" combines free-jazz meditation with kick-ass blues to create a black-belt tone poem‚ and his guitar is one of the elements that give an undeniable strut to the closer "Winter Brings." This band is a big hungry dog‚ but with D'Aloia's uncompromising presence in the mix‚ that dog's got sharp teeth!
While the clever reboot of Jimmy Heath's "Gingerbread Boy" is evidence of what can happen when Pray's whip-smart arranging side is prodded (in this case‚ by Siegel's seemingly-impossible suggestion)‚ the crown jewel of Confluence is Pray's wicked take on John Coltrane's "Africa." While Trane rose majestically above Creed Taylor's unwieldy orchestra on the original recording‚ Pray's stripped-out version lets the tune's inherent urgency out for a headlong run. Driven by Pappas' pulsing bass and Siegel's killer drums‚ Pray and D'Aloia go far off the charts while Tomlinson seriously gets his McCoy Tyner on. The final result goes three steps beyond the next level‚ ending on a long final chord that could be interpreted as the runner collapsing in exhaustion.
There are moments of pastoral beauty on Confluence‚ courtesy of the ballad "Song for Katie" and the waltzing "Two Years of the Lotus Blossom." At the end of the day‚ though‚ this disc's best moments are the ones out on the edge‚ where Pray's "sweet spot" really comes into play. Knowing what a prolific composer Pray is‚ I don't worry whether there's more of this rampant goodness to come. My question is the same one the 5-year old in the back seat perpetually asks: "When we gonna get there?"