TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Drummer Tom Rainey is featured on two new CDs. One is by Chicago bass clarinetist Jason Stein. The other is by Rainey's own quintet, Obbligato. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says they demonstrate two different approaches to playing jazz counterpoint. Here's his review.
(SOUNDBITE OF JASON STEIN QUARTET'S "DEXTERITY")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: A couple of things you don't hear much on Jason Stein's new album "Lucille!" - one is the frontline of two subterranean clarinets. Also, the horns often improvise together - duo, not solo. Stein on bass clarinet and Keefe Jackson on contrabass clarinet or tenor sax play in counterpoint, fitting one spontaneous line to another on the fly. That's almost a lost art in modern jazz, but that busy sound is exhilarating, whether the musicians gracefully weave around each other or butt heads.
(SOUNDBITE OF JASON STEIN QUARTET'S "MARSHMALLOW")
WHITEHEAD: Low reeds playing rowdy versions of bebop classics by Charlie Parker, Warne Marsh and Lennie Tristano point to the influence of counterpoint-friendly reed man Anthony Braxton. Jason Stein and Keefe Jackson dig into the raspy, explosive properties of the big clarinets, the high overtones ready to burst out of any super low note. There's something a little comic about the sound, but jazz musicians are not above a little low humor.
(SOUNDBITE OF JASON STEIN QUARTET'S "LITTLE ROOTIE TOOTIE")
WHITEHEAD: Jason Stein's quartet on Thelonious Monk's "Little Rootie Tootie" with a deep and surefooted bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Tom Rainey playing a bit of melody on his tom-toms. The other guys on Stein's album "Lucille!" are Chicagoans, but Rainey came in from New York. There, he unleashes some jazz counterpoint of his own with his quintet Obbligato. Their new CD is called "Float Upstream."
(SOUNDBITE OF TOM RAINEY OBBLIGATO'S "THERE IS NO GREATER LOVE")
WHITEHEAD: That's a more airy brand of counterpoint and not only because of the higher pitch of Ingrid Laubrock's soprano sax and Ralph Alessi's trumpet. They phrase around as much as on top of each other. The band Obbligato plays jazz standards like "There Is No Greater Love" in a conversational way. The musicians know these tunes so well; they can jump in and out anywhere without distracting anybody. They may play the melody or leave it alone.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOM RAINEY OBBLIGATO'S "STELLA BY STARLIGHT")
WHITEHEAD: That's "Stella By Starlight" with Ingrid Laubrock on tenor saxophone. Pianist Kris Davis makes a few delayed entrances and sometimes takes lean solos like piano is another horn. She won't throw the instrument's weight around. Davis plays thorny new music in so many bands. The standards quintet puts her in a whole other light. She illuminates classic ballads and their harmonies from within while the horns flutter about like birds. This is "I Fall In Love Too Easily."
(SOUNDBITE OF TOM RAINEY OBBLIGATO'S "I FALL IN LOVE TOO EASILY")
WHITEHEAD: Drummer Tom Rainey and bassist Drew Gress go back 30 years and umpteen bands. They anchor all that whirling on top and step out a bit themselves. There are many dozens of jazz bands that play the classic American Songbook, but few address them with the offhand freedom that Tom Rainey's Obbligato does. Plus, there's all that glorious improvised counterpoint. Did I mention we could use more of that?
(SOUNDBITE OF TOM RAINEY OBBLIGATO'S "WHAT'S NEW")
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Lucille!" by the Jason Stein Quartet and "Float Upstream" by Tom Rainey's quintet, Obbligato. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.