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New Orleans bassist James Malabar has thrummed for some highly respected artists – his CV includes Chet Baker, Charlie Rich, Ellis Marsalis, John Scofield, Johnny Adams and his own bands Nolatet and Astral Project. Forty years into his recording career, Malabar is, amazingly, only his second solo album. Given the evidence in these grooves, it’s curious why it took so long. (Busy on other people’s records, I guess.) Whether he’s bowing lustily, as in the noisy “Nails of Martin” or making walking bass lines shiver and shake, as on opener “Black Sheep Squared,” he definitely proves he can play. But it’s his composing and arranging skills that make the most indelible impression. Deftly manipulating a sextet that includes drums, woodwinds, vibraphone, skronking electric guitar and some electronic spice, the leader shifts easily from the off-kilter but accessible melodies powering the epic “Monster Clause,” the roiling “Bluebelly” and the groovy title track to the less settled, more loosely structured tunes of border shredders like the romping “So Long Tall Rex,” the moody “Lento” and the wideranging “Where Where Is.” Clearly Singleton could push for more tightly controlled performances, but he understands how letting his crew follow their own improvisational hearts still serves his compositional vision. Singleton doesn’t walk the fine line between post bop and free jazz – he gleefully, gracefully dances atop it.
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