Malachi Thompson has little patience with dogmatists who claim that a jazz musician has to live in New York to be legitimate. The veteran trumpeter has been around the Chicago jazz scene all his life, and he knows darn well that there are many accomplished Midwestern improvisers who don't have a Manhattan address. In the liner notes that he wrote for Talking Horns, Thompson spends a lot of time discussing the Chicago/St. Louis connection in jazz - a connection that Delmark founder Bob Koester is well aware of because he started the label in St. Louis before moving it to Chicago. Both are Midwestern cities that have made important contributions to jazz, and this 1999 session finds Thompson acknowledging the cities by leading a sextet that consists of four Chicagoans (Thompson, pianist Willie Pickens, bassist Harrison Bankhead, and drummer Reggie Nicholson) and two St. Louis natives (alto saxman Oliver Lake and baritone saxman Hamiet Bluiett). Together, the improvisers favor an inside/outside approach and divide their time between hard swinging post-bop and more abstract, AACM-minded avant-garde jazz. "Circles in the Air" and the African-influenced title track are among the CDs more left-of-center offerings, while "Brass and Oak," "Way Back When We Didn't Understand," and the McCoy Tyner-ish "Lucky Seven" are hard swinging post-bop items that are more inside than outside. Thompson, true to form, insists on keeping his options open - the trumpeter sees no reason why he cannot be influenced by Freddie Hubbard one minute and Lester Bowie the next. As a result, Talking Horns is unpredictable - you never know from one track to the next if the sextet will go in a straight-ahead post-bop direction or an AACM-influenced avant-garde direction. But whatever direction the sextet chooses, this album is consistently strong and serves as a fine example of Midwestern acoustic jazz.
All Music Guide
Malachi Thompson has long been a fixture on the Delmark label roster. This disc marks his tenth try with the label. The majority of his previous recordings have been hit and miss affairs and past problems are the probable product of single label stagnation alongside a sometimes-scattershot track record with material and supporting musicians. Arguably his strongest band and program to date, this latest entry is a step above earlier efforts, but still suffers from a certain unevenness.
Thompson is the principal tunesmith on the date, but Bluiett and Lake also contribute several pieces. The band opens things up with an ardent tribute to Woody Shaw couched around a dark-tinged theme reminiscent of the style of forward-thinking hard bop favored by the deceased trumpeter. Limbering up further on Lake's "Brass and Oak" the horns, led by the composer, cycle through a series of melody-based improvisations. Thompson's intonation seems to slip a notch in several spots during his say, but the errors are minor. Bluiett honks out one of his subterranean R&B riffs on "Way Back When We Didn't Understand," shifting to streaking altissimo whistles for his bout on the heartfelt homage "Fred Hopkins." The title track is an overlong vehicle for the leader alone and Thompson, through the use of overdubbing, chimes in on an array of instruments with only qualified success. The leader's brief bout with self indulgence proves that the group is at its best when it dispenses with pretense and simply commences to blow. Such is definitely the case with the Thompson original "Lucky Seven," built on the strong foundation of soulful solos from each of the horns, Pickens and Nicholson.
Using the liners to take Ken Burns to task for his revisionist Marsalis-centric take on jazz history he illustrates among other things Chicago's proper place in the music's historical development and the true importance of the avant-garde. The sextet's music (built upon the myriad of traditions of which Thompson writes) is a natural extension of these prose-channeled corrections. Still, his treatise comes off as somewhat disjointed and ill timed, kind of like the eleventh-hour stone-thrower who arrives at a stoning after the victim has already been beaten into submission. While there are moments where a 'going-through-the-motions' mood invades, there's also a great deal of enjoyable music on this disc and making it worth a listen. Thompson's track record with Delmark may be a sketchy one, but there's no refuting the passion he harbors for the music he's made his life's work.
- Derek Taylor, AAJ