This album, the debut of Robin Eubanks’ Mass Line Big Band, was released in late November of last year, too late for me to give it a sufficient listen for inclusion in my best of the year jazz picks. But it is one of the best jazz releases I’ve heard from 2015, and certainly the best big band recording of the year—as this is new and original music, it is more valuable to me that Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project (which is archival and backward looking), and I far prefer this to Maria Schneider’s The Thompson Fields.
The style is familiar from Eubanks’ years with Dave Holland’s Quintet, and there is material on here, like “A Seeking Spirit,” that Eubanks contributed to Holland’s group, and that here he as effectively rearranged. Eubanks thrives with a lot of driving, complex rhythms, and rich, hard edged harmonies that hit like a boxer on the heavy bag. This is a big, powerful, swaggering band, with superior individual musicians like saxophonists Antonio Hart and Marcus Strickland, trumpeters Lew Soloff and Alex Sipiagin, and trombonists Jason Jackson and Douglas Purviance. Drummer Nate Smith, veteran of Chris Potter’s Underground, is a pleasure to hear and feel in the body, and there are excellent colorations from pianist Glenn Zaleski and organist Mike King.
Eubanks’ own playing is excellent. His mellow sound and fluid agility disguise his quick, expressive thinking—he’ll drop in a half-bar’s worth of sophistiacted funk or elegant blues in the midst of a compelling, up-tempo improvisation. As the initial, strong impression of the band gives way, the leader’s own statements grow in depth and subtley. This is a record that gets better every time you listen to it.