Despite living in the Chicago area for over 20 years, I had never heard of guitarist Dan Phillips. Perhaps this is because his tenure in the city ended a while back when he moved to Thailand. Nonetheless, his bandmates on this release, Mars Williams on saxophone, Hamid Drake on drums, and Jeb Bishop on trombone are well-known here and afar. Joined by bassist Krysztof Pabian, Phillips’ Chicago Edge Ensemble seeks to capture the modern “Chicago jazz” sound. Whether or not one believes that they achieved this goal, Decaying Orbit is a compelling and worthwhile release.
What is today’s Chicago sound? One would have to recognize the influence of the AACM (particularly the Art Ensemble of Chicago) above most others. Beyond that, musicians such as Ken Vandermark, Nicole Mitchell, Dave Rempis, Tim Daisy, Fred Anderson, Jim Baker, Kent Kessler, Avreeayl Ra, and many others are ambassadors of the city’s music. While these individuals lean left-of-center, focusing on creative and free jazz, Chicago also features a robust traditional component, as well as those who land in various places on the spectrum between those two points.
Decaying Orbit is a tuneful offering that nods to this continuum, with its fair share of discordance and outside playing, without going all-out free. For instance, Attitude Adjustment begins with a catchy trombone / guitar / sax theme before going structureless for over a minute, then returning to form with horn solos over guitar motifs. One more open-ended excursion follows, quieter this time, before a sax and trombone theme takes the track to its nine-minute conclusion.
Other tracks follow a similar formula of blending styles, as well as composed and improvised sections. Included are angular sax breaks, clean guitar solos, and the occasional blow-out. The pairing of Williams and Bishop provides a thick, urgent brass sound, while the rhythm section is busy without being hyperactive. Put another way, Phillips composed complex lines with solid grooves that this veteran group carries out with vigor and ease.
The beauty of Decaying Orbit is its broad appeal. Fans of both traditional and more adventurous jazz will find much to like here. Indeed, the Chicago Edge Ensemble does manage to succeed in representing the city’s diverse musical roots, and in a highly enjoyable fashion to boot.