Saxophonist Stephen Riley commits an album titling sin even more egregious than the wince-inducing punning antics of predecessors like Lees Konitz and Morgan. But jazzmen have long catered to their cornier impulses since well before Sonny Rollins decided to tackle “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” and “On a Slow Boat to China.” Besides, Riley’s got the creative chops to absolve such an offense with a single ethereal phrasing from his horn.
Riley’s Hart-beat marks the 70th Steeplechase session for drummer Billy Hart (though curiously his sole date as a leader for the label came only last year), a milestone that measures both his storied reliability and versatility. Bassist Neal Caine, a confrere of reedist for two decades, completes the package. Riley’s return to the pianoless roots of his first two albums for the Danish label is a welcome one. Sans a strict chordal instrument of that sort, he’s free to float and flutter at will, hewing frequently to melodic figures only as signposts to more flurried and elaborate improvisation.
The disc opens with a first in the Riley discography, a solo rendering of the standard “Just You, Just Me” that finds him lithely modulating the melody and aiming for maximum aeration in his tone. Riley’s routinely shied away from sharing originals on his albums for Steeplechase, making the presence of standards and covers is practically a given, but these three players are experts in making even the hoariest, hackneyed tunes appear viable and even new. Take “Mr. Sandman,” a moth-eaten slice of sentimental pop that immediately echoes the cornball connotations of the album’s title, at least on paper. Riley and Caine confront it in a duo configuration, slowing it to a billowy crawl before opening it up through a stream of braiding variations. Caine’s bass work — boiling over with anchoring stops, switchbacks and thrumming momentum — is a minor wonder to behold. Each nearly as old as the hills, “The End of a Love Affair” and “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” similarly don’t offer much in terms of preliminary expectations and are both transformed into memorable performances by the keen, space-conscious communication of the three.
A pair of Joe Henderson pieces, “Isotope” and “Black Narcissus,” embodies more obvious marks and Riley exudes the dryly-textured influence of the elder saxophonist in his gravity-nullifying articulations. Hart’s active accompaniment is a paragon of calibrated restraint, filling and coloring the crevices around Caine’s near-constant pizzicato propulsion. Coltrane’s über-dirge “Lonnie’s Lament” and the coiling harmonic obstacle course of Monk’s “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are” supply more feracious fodder for the trio, with Caine and Hart attaining an uncommon confluence in their contributions. Riley’s singular tone is probably his most personalized instrumental trait, a mesmerizing, multi-layered purr achieved through hard, specially conditioned reeds and a custom-modified horn in the tradition of older originals, like Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Von Freeman. It’s all over this disc, along with the superlative and signature work of Caine and Hart.