February 2002

Jeff Beal - Alternate Route
Unitone Recordings CD 13702-4801-2
Released: 2001

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***

[Reviewed on CD]Isn’t it amazing that over 35 years after their last collaboration, Miles Davis and Gil Evans are still inspiring jazz musicians? Albums such as Miles Ahead, Porgy And Bess, Quiet Nights, and their classic Sketches of Spain set the molds that others still try to pour their own music into. Trumpeter Jeff Beal is no exception. His latest album Alternate Route seems to pick up right where Sketches left off. But instead of using an enlarged jazz band, Beal chooses to support his playing with either the Berkeley Symphony or the Metropole orchestra.

Beal splits this disc into two separate sections. Part one, recorded with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, is divided into four parts: "North," "South," "East" and "West." Beal's liner notes state that these titles were intended to allude to the idea that the journey is more important than the destination itself. The music here tries to mirror the areas indicated by the titles of the tunes.

The second half contains more of a jazz element. Recorded in the Netherlands with the Metropole orchestra, its four section, while not connected in the manner of the first four tracks, still display a thematic continuity. Miles' influence, especially the album Miles Ahead, is much in evidence. Beal’s trumpet/flugelhorn floats out over the groove laid down by the rhythm section, and augmented by the Metropole. These selections caught my attention much more than the first part. Beal's use of space is reminiscent of Miles'. You won’t find any flurry of fast-played notes, just well-thought-out, precisely placed notes. I also hear elements of Art Farmer, especially on the track "Circle Suite."

Just as there are two parts to this disc, there are two distinct sonic halves. The first part is pretty well recorded. The soundstage is, while not speaker to speaker, less than wall to wall. Dynamics are compressed, something which detracts from the sonic enjoyment. The trumpet, however, has a rich burnished sound, along with some bite. It sounds as though Beal’s using a mute throughout.

The second part, recorded in Europe, is a very different bag. There is good width and depth, with even some layering evident. The dynamic swings are much more in evidence and there is more bite to the trumpet/flugelhorn sound.

Attempting to take on acknowledged jazz masters on their home turf is a tough row to hoe, yet Alternate Route is not embarrassed by such comparisons. And, while Beal never really comes close to the standards set by those Davis/Evans classic recordings, he does create some interesting music. I think both Davis and Evans would be pleased at the direction their idea has taken. But as to whether or not you’ll find Alternate Route of enough interest to lay your hard earned money down, well, that’s up to you. Should you choose to, you’ll be rewarded with a disc of well-thought-out contemporary symphonic jazz. If that’s your bag, this is your music.