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Andy Laster 

Soft Shell (Knitting Factory)

An important figure in the current new music scene, alto saxophonist Andy Laster leads an all-star quartet here with trumpeter/cornetist Herb Robertson, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Tom Rainey. While certainly challenging, the group's music is also accessible, and there's even a standard on the disc, Kurt Weill's "Here I'll Stay." Laster, however, wrote the rest of the pieces. While some of his themes, including "South Shore Reform Experience Part 6," are quite beautiful, other tracks, such as "No. 16" and "Tentacles," are unpredictable, evoking the work of Ornette Coleman. Fans familiar with modern jazz shouldn't have trouble following what's going on here, as the solos are built on preset structures and steady tempos.

The instrumental work leaves little to be desired; Laster's solos, though angular and highly fragmented, are clich´-free and logically assembled. Robertson's a major if unsung musician, whose work comes out of the tradition of Lester Bowie and Don Cherry; he's also known for his extended techniques and the unusual timbres he produces. Here he plays in a somewhat more orthodox but still impressive manner, as he concentrates on improvising substantive lines instead of unique sonorities. One of the top contemporary bassists, Gress isn't flashy, but has excellent technique. He's a supportive accompanist and a tasteful and musical soloist. Rainey is versatile, adapting his work to Laster's varied compositions. Laster's group does an exemplary job, individually and collectively, exhibiting originality, inventiveness, and emotional involvement. If only there were more of an audience for this type of music.

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