Originally published at rec.music.bluenote
One of the highlights of straight ahead jazz in the 1980s was the group Sphere, which combined veterans such as tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse and drummer Ben Riley with younger musicians Kenny Barron and Buster Williams. The ensemble was frequently cited as one of the few bands that had a cohesiveness and group concept which enabled the musicians to take chances and explore new areas while retaining their identities.
The group that bassist Ron Carter formed in the mid 1970s to feature his custom-made piccolo bass became the rhythm section of Sphere. Pianist Kenny Barron (born 1943) and bassist Buster Williams (born 1942) were well-known fixtures on the New York music scene and had played with some of the leading stars in jazz. Barron had worked with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard during his most avant garde period and Williams often substituted for Carter in the mid-1960s Miles Davis Quintet and it might seem that these two would be the ones to keep an eye on musical innovations. However, they were not at all hindered by the experience and history that the other members brought with them. The time that both Ben Riley (born 1933) and senior member Charlie Rouse (born 1924) spent together in pianist Thelonious Sphere Monk’s quartet in the 1960s may well have prepared them for the music of the future.
Unknowingly, Sphere first recorded on the day that Monk died (February 17, 1982) and their first album featured his works exclusively. While the group has always kept Monk’s music as an important part of its repertoire, soon Barron, Williams, and occasionally Rouse began adding original compositions to the mix. Particularly with the very distinctive sound of Rouse’s saxophone voice at the fore, these tunes immediately fit into the framework established by the group’s performances of the Monk canon.
For more than five years, Sphere toured the world and the albums that they recorded are strong evidence of their accomplishments: a novel approach to standard tunes, memorable new pieces with challenging harmonic progressions, and authoritative renderings of classic jazz works by not only Monk, but also Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington – all played by top-notch musicians of great sensitivity and individuality.
Rouse’s death of lung cancer in 1988 seemed to close the book on Sphere with no second chance in sight. As very active and in-demand sidemen, Barron, Williams and Riley continued to perform and record, meeting up with each other in various aggregations. Extended club engagements and tours by Kenny Barron sometimes added the alto and soprano saxophonist Gary Bartz, who first made a name for himself with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the mid 1960s. When the talk of reconvening Sphere became a reality, Bartz was the choice.
Newcomer Bartz (born 1940) brings a rather different sound and style to the ensemble. Since the 1950s, the tenor saxophone, whether that of Rouse, Johnny Griffin or John Coltrane, was an indispensable characteristic of the Thelonious Monk Quartet, from which the earlier Sphere could not escape comparisons. Rouse’s sharp jabbing style of articulation and his use of stark rhythmic contrasts made him instantly identifiable. The substitution of alto (and occasionally soprano) saxophone makes for a fresh ingredient and allows for a new Sphere sound to be created – a lighter, somewhat more refined, more polished approach. On paper, one might think otherwise – while Charlie Rouse had links to Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine and Count Basie, Gary Bartz had worked with Miles Davis during his electric period of the early 1970s and later with McCoy Tyner. However, Bartz is clearly a kindred spirit to the other members, who are noted for their versatility as well as their musical integrity.
The album opens with “We See”, which Thelonious Monk first recorded for the Prestige label in 1954. The melody statement is exceptional, and Bartz shows that he can deliver the phrasing and rhythmic conception necessary for making Monk’s tunes sound convincing. In his solo, however, Bartz combines elements of the playing of John Coltrane and Jackie McLean. The group takes fewer liberties with the playing of Monk’s melodies, but there are subtle alterations, such as the piano voicings, that let the listener know that this is a vibrant, living performance, not a museum piece.
Part of Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite, the beautiful ballad “Isfahan” by Billy Strayhorn was originally a feature for Johnny Hodges’s alto saxophone. Here it is taken at rather a faster tempo than usual and Ben Riley again proves that he is one of the greatest exponents of the wire brushes. When he switches from brushes to sticks, his ride cymbal threatens to steal the show. Buster Williams supports Bartz and Barron with consistently inventive lines that have melodic and rhythmic interest as well as harmonic function.
Bartz’s “Uncle Bubba” was previously recorded with McCoy Tyner and it is fitting that the piece is reprised here as it is a dedication to Monk. Reminiscent of Monk’s “Misterioso,” Frank Loesser’s “Inch Worm,” and John Coltrane’s “Harmonique” in its melodic presentation, this composition (like “Misterioso”) is a blues and each soloist plays with the relaxed feel that the well-known progression encourages. Here and in several other spots on this album, Barron extends his playing range downward into the bass register and the effect is stunning.
After six albums, the group is still mining the motherlode of Thelonious Monk’s genius and “Hornin’ In,” although recorded by Monk for Blue Note in 1952, is one of his least played compositions and it still sounds fresh. Kenny Barron has never really been the sort of minimalist player that Monk was and he seems even less inhibited when paired with the garrulous Bartz. The conversation between Williams and Riley as they trade eights is engaging – both men have unique sounds and styles and both play musically, never letting technique overtake taste.
“Buck and Wing” is a much more fluid piece than would have been found during Rouse’s tenure with the group. While it has the sound of a technical exercise, the rhythm section adds just the right punctuations to offset the regularity of the melody. In his solo, composer Bartz plays with simple motives, twisting and turning the ideas again and again, rather than constantly moving on to new material. Barron picks up on this approach (which is often associated with Monk) and this helps to unify the performance. During the fours with Riley, Barron and Bartz develop this even further.
Kenny Barron’s “Twilight” is a somewhat reconsidered version of his earlier “Twilight Song.” As a composer, Barron blends lyricism and dissonance to create pieces which establish a definite mood. “Twilight” uses a simple melody and the faintest trace of funk rhythms to present a ballad that is not a ballad. The form of the piece is non-standard, moving from section to section smoothly but never repeating. The empathy that this group has for Barron’s work is evident. Bartz is heard on soprano saxophone and Buster Williams’s bass solo is one of his best, with clear melodies and his trademark sliding glissandi which focus the listener’s attention.
Starting with a beautiful rubato piano statement of the seldom-played verse, “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” from Oklahoma is presented in a up-tempo reharmonized rendition. Bartz solos first and is fiery, handling with ease the prolonged modal- as well as the bebop-type sections in this arrangement. Kenny Barron delivers an improvisation which presents lucid ideas while never faltering at the brisk tempo before the band moves into a drum feature which is accompanied, rather than strictly solo.
The first album by the group shows that each player is at the top of his game and that they have a rapport which will allow for subsequent development. As great a player as Charlie Rouse was, his sound was forever linked with Monk and this definitely created preconceptions that the original Sphere constantly strove to move past. The absence of Rouse seems to make the new Sphere less a Monk tribute band and more a contemporary quartet comprising four excellent like-minded musicians. The new ensemble has already toured the world to excellent response and it is sure to reclaim its position as one of the leading jazz groups around today.