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A product of the New York City jazz scene, 69-year-old Rick Porter earned his credentials first, then moved to Houston. Those credentials, while not enough to make Porter a bona fide jazz star, are nonetheless impressive and rival those of any other player in town.
Born in the West Indies, Porter grew up during the '30s and '40s in New York City, where neighborhood friends and jamming partners included legends Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean and the late Art Taylor. After spending time jamming with Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Horace Silver, Porter eventually moved to Houston in the '70s and hooked up with saxophonist Arnett Cobb and bandleader Milt Larkin. While Porter gained a solid reputation in town, his career was put on hold because of substance abuse and consequent legal problems. Porter, with his troubles behind him, is now reclaiming his position as one of the city's better drummers.
Recorded in April, Live at Cezanne... Before the Night Has Flown features Porter's sextet, The Music Unlimited Ensemble. It includes Porter, trumpeter Dennis Dotson, saxophonist Seth Paynter, pianist Robert Boston, bassist Jerry Johnson and guitarist John Edward Ross. Before the Night consists of ten Porter originals, which have strong ties to the '50s/'60s bebop era. His songs and arrangements are clearly influenced by his mentor Tadd Dameron and hardbop master Silver. In fact, "Basirah's Dream" is a fun melody that comes right out of the Silver playbook, complete with catchy piano fills. As a composer, Porter writes "in the pocket" themes that open up a number of improvisational avenues. In a way, Porter's composing style is similar to vibraphonist Johnny Lytle's: He creates melodies you haven't heard before but think you have. As a drummer and bandleader, Porter is more concerned with guiding the group and providing the rhythmic foundation than with being a flamboyant centerpiece. He doesn't dominate, but at the same time, he marks his territory.
Most of the solo space is given to Dotson, Paynter and Boston. Highly respected by fellow Houston musicians, Dotson is a skilled soloist who designs logical but not necessarily predictable improvisations. He can stretch out for extended periods without losing the audience, the mark of a good improviser. Paynter is at his best on this session when performing ballads; his long solo on "Before the Night Has Flown" is particularly beautiful. Boston is in fine form on every track, whether he's providing solid comps, spacious melodic solos or bluesy work.
Before the Night's recording quality is surprisingly good considering it was taken from a live performance at a venue with no real history of such tapings. While intimate, Cezanne can be cramped for a sextet. There are some recording flaws, such as the undermiked vocalist (who's also unattributed) on "A Sleeping Rose"; Boston's piano doesn't sound as full as it should, either. As for the CD packaging, Before the Night has a DIY feel: The computer-generated graphics and typeface aren't major-label quality, and the liner notes are lacking. And the disc itself is a CD-R, not a regular CD, which means it may not be playable in some older devices.
Live at Cezanne... Before the Night Has Flown is a good example of the solid bebop Houston offers every weekend. There's nothing here on the edge, but Before the Night is still a good effort, documenting some talented local players. That alone makes it worth a listen. -- Paul J. MacArthur
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