Back in 1991, Bruce Gertz’s debut disc as a leader, Blueprint (originally on the French Freelance label, reissued on Evidence), struck me as a too-rare example of established musicians getting together to throw attention in the direction of a lesser-known peer. Everyone in Gertz’s quintet had a “Name,” yet each performed selflessly in the service of the bassist’s music. As a result, the all-star unit ended up sounding like a real, committed band. How nice, I thought, that Bruce got the opportunity to show he could lead such a band. How much nicer that he had met a challenge that might never come his way again with writing and playing of such substance.
By now, we know that Blueprint was neither a fluke nor an isolated achievement. Gertz reassembled the same quintet in 1992 and recorded Third Eye, then brought them back two years later for Discovery Zone (both on the Italian Ram label). Now, with only one change in personnel, the Gertz quintet gives us its fourth volume of exceptional music. That in itself is a statement about loyalty and consistency of inspiration that few bands in the 90’s can match. There may be strong internal relationships within the quintet that predicted success - the Gertz/Bergonzi hook-up that has now entered its third decade, the deep pocket Abercrombie and Nussbaum have been carving out in the guitarist’s trio with Dan Wall - but the Bruce Gertz quintet most definitely has its own personality and five-sided equilibrium, and has amassed its own intriguing body of music. Any new chapter in the band’s story is an event.
For all the talent at his disposal when the quintet assembles, the credit must primarily go to Gertz, whose input (like all superior leaders’) is multifaceted. His writing, as always, is one key factor. Gertz simply has a knack for composing tunes with bold contours that set an improvising atmosphere guaranteed to stretch the soloists. He may often use familiar harmonic structures, as he does in a few instances here, but he always finds a harmonic or rhythmic adjustment that refreshes the changes and takes his new melodies into areas where they establish a presence of their own. Gertz’s slower, moody pieces are as well crafted as his fast, more complex creations and, regardless of tempo, each line possesses a clarity that encourages attentive and sympathetic embellishment from his partners.
Gertz also invariably seizes upon the potential within each composition through arrangements that are expository in the best sense. His sensitivity to each player’s sound is crucial in the regard. Note how he deploys Bergonzi and Abercrombie, two of the most identifiable personalities on their respective instruments, for Gertz always knows where a particular voice in the quintet should lead or lay out. Then pay similar attention to Gertz’s choices regarding when he plays electric bass rather than upright, and when he bows the bass. There is a far wider range of sound to be gleaned from the combination of these five particular musicians than we are presented by most quintets, and Gertz inevitably shares a few more of those sounds with each recording.
Another test of Gertz the leader is his status as an equal among the soloists. Many listeners seem to need reassurance when a bass player or a drummer directs a recording that they have not used the occasion to play a substantial number of solos. No such reassurances can be offered here, but based on the results none are needed. Gertz allots himself ample feature space, to which he applies the same invention and taste that we hear in the so-called “front-line” soloists. A critical aspect of his success is that gertz always retains the essential, momentum-generating function of the bass, even while bowing or venturing into the instrument’s upper range. His time is too strong to allow a clear rhythmic direction to get submerged by more technical flourishes in his improvisations. The meshing of Gertz and Nussbaum as a rhythm section has also grown so strong at this point in the quintet’s history that it provides both added assurance and continuing challenge to the other soloists.
The sidemen are at their best, as they have invariably been on the previous Gertz quintet discs. The music guides them to some particularly eloquent inventions, of which Bergonzi’s solo on the opening “Sun Flash” is indicative. This tenor saxophonist knows so much music, and applies it so effortlessly, that there is often a temptation to marvel at his harmonic substitutions, thematic extensions and rhythmic displacements and leave it at that; yet the freshness and resonance of Bergonzi’s ideas take his playing beyond such dry analysis. On the same number, Barth immediately establishes that he possesses the quick wits and team-spirited vision to work as lucidly in the company as his predecessor Joey Calderazzo. Barth is another musician, like Gertz, whose excellence has grown more obvious in recent years, as he gets more opportunities to be heard. His affinity for Gertz’s music comes as no surprise after his participation in the Gertz/Ken Cervenka album Shut Wide Open (Double Time 132), though Barth began his hookup with both Gertz and Bergonzi even earlier, during his student years in Boston. Abercrombie, as always, has the perfectly original response for every occasion, and the creative curiosity that was made for such memorable Gertz visions a “Big Heart” and “Remembering the Future.”
There have been few opportunities to hear this quintet in person - precious few for those who don’t live in the Boston area; but Gertz sustains an existence for the band beyond the recording studio whenever he can. You might not call the Gertz quintet a working band in the long-lost night-after-night sense, yet it is most definitely a living band. As the music here indicates, it is completing its first decade more alive than ever.