Film noir - the dimly-lit, cynical and stylish urban crime dramas that flourished as a cinematic sub-genre during the mid-20th Century - appears to be the inspiration behind guitarist/composer Andrew Greene's "Narrow Margin."
The CD takes its title from Robert Fleischer's 1952 film, and while music inspired by film can be slight, lightweight, and overly concerned with surface appearance, there are also numerous examples of movie-related jazz that is meaty, substantial and successful on multiple levels. I am happy to report that "Narrow Margin" falls firmly into the latter category.
Green, whom I had never heard of prior to receiving this CD, is supported by a stellar cast of young, top-flight jazzmen, including trumpeter Russ Johnson and tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry. Green is no slouch, himself. His writing sparkles with wit, invention and surprise, and his clean, uncluttered guitar playing is sharp, technically adept and craftily inspired.
Though I associate film noir with gritty, relatively uncomplicated mood-jazz, the sonic parallels to Green's work on "Narrow Margin" are to be found in the adventurous explorations (film-related and otherwise) from the late 50s and early 60s by artists such as Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Mal Waldron, Quincy Jones, and by the cadre of 'intellectual' Blue Note artists such as Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, and Freddie Hubbard. Other influences, including a nod to Eddie Harris-styled acoustic jazz-funk (e.g., 'Short Cuts'), also crop up and simply point to Green's versatility as a composer and his ability to shine as a solist in any musical setting.
None of the CD's eight tracks come across as a simple vehicle for a succession of acrobatic solos - not that there's anything wrong with that, especially with a backing band of this caliber. Yet, Green seems to have very specific images and motivations in mind for each piece, and each contains a succession of twists and turns - some of which you see coming, and some of which you don't. The band handles these convolutions with ease and aplomb and quite a bit of heat.
McHenry is simply amazing - his massive, throaty tenor sound provides ample drama to the tense title track, adds a screwily intelligent gleam to the rocking 'Short Cuts,' and heats '.45 Auto' up well past the boiling point. Johnson matches McHenry's creativity and inspiration - offering a succession of rousing, animated trumpet solos throughout. He sparkles especially brightly on the lilting, Latin-infused 'Midnight Novelette.' The rest of the band is just as sharp. The high point comes on 'Narrow Margin / Taxi Driver' - an interpolation of Green's own composition with Bernard Herrman's theme music that is a tour de force of musical tension and release.
Andrew Green's "Narrow Margin" is an uncommonly compelling and vibrant jazz recording that should not be missed - one of the year's very best.