Michael Thomas: The Illusion Of Choice

NY saxophonist leads pianist Manuel Valera, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Obed Calvaire in a set of modern modal jazz

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In reviving Criss Cross, Jerry Teekens is continuing the style, approach and high artistic standards of his father’s label. The latter was notable especially for great recordings of neglected beboppers such as Warne Marsh, as well as by leading younger mainstream players. I recently reviewed the label’s excellent Most Peculiar by guitarist Lage Lund, and now I’m listening to another younger player new to me, alto saxophonist Michael Thomas.

Illusion, his fourth album as leader, features an ensemble selected for the occasion, not a working band as on his earlier albums. It features Manuel Valera, Matt Brewer and Obed Calvaire – bassist Brewer was on the Lage Lund release. “These musicians can play any style and sound like it’s the only thing they play. I wanted to explore these different areas and cohere them into an album.”

For it, Thomas created eight originals that feature shifting metres and state-of-the-art harmonic challenges. “I try to give people enough to understand and absorb, but not so much as to make them wonder what’s going on,” Thomas adds. He plays multiple reeds and woodwinds, but the alto saxophone is his main instrument. He’s a fluent and engaging stylist throughout. Information Paradox has a long solo by pianist Manuel Valera that shows his freedom with time, and reminds me a little of Jason Moran. He switches to atmospheric electric keyboards on the next track, The Other Side, which has the leader on soprano saxophone, then a gentle but haunting solo on electric bass by Matt Brewer. Shades Of Green is a furious uptempo number in modal jazz vein.

The result is an immensely enjoyable release that offers an insight into the range of contemporary jazz improvisation and composition. The compositions are of a high standard, and full of interest. It’s great to see Criss Cross in operation again, and I await future releases with keen interest.

Discography
Circles; Hokkeshu; Information Paradox; The Other Side; Shades Of Green; Mnemosyne; Darkness And Light; The Illusion Of Choice; It Could Happen To You (59.26) 
Michael Thomas (as, ss); Manuel Valera (p); Matt Brewer (b); Obed Calvaire (d). Astoria, NY, 14 September 2023.
Criss Cross Jazz 1418 CD