Christopher Hoffman‘s new Asp Nimbus – streaming at Bandcamp – might well be the first-ever jazz quartet album to feature a lineup of cello, vibraphone, bass and drums. That’s typical of Hoffman, who continues to push the envelope for what an improvising cellist can do. Interestingly, this is an album of jukebox jazz. Most everything here is under the four minute mark, and highly composed, as traditional as this dedicated nontraditionalist will probably ever get. This texturally enticing and often unselfconsciously beautiful album is one of the best of 2021 so far.
The opening number, Discretionary dances in on drummer Craig Weinrib’s fluttery beat and bassist Rashaan Carter’s elastic pulse, the bandleader entering with a bluesy, martially-tinged, thoughtfully spacious solo, then handing off to vibraphonist Bryan Carrott’s soaring, clustering lines.
Dylan George, a dedication to the bandleader’s late brother, is an energetic, ebullient theme spiced with guest David Virelles’ steady, enigmatic piano, Hoffman again choosing his spots, Carrott leading the band down to hazy unease and then back toward a funky sway before a macabre, tinkling outro. Clearly, we lost a forceful presence way too soon.
The album’s title track has moments of ridiculous levity over a lithe quasi-shuffle fueled by a twin bassline: Hoffman’s solo is more tongue-in-cheek. With its brooding klezmer inflections over a contrastingly nimble pulse, Angles of Influence is just plain gorgeous; Carter’s clustering solo raises the temperature several degrees.
The album’s fifth track, Orb, comes across as an interlude from something more expansive, centered around Carrott’s bittersweet gleam as the rhythm section fidgets. Set to a spring-loaded, slow stroll, Non-Submersible seems to allude to both a famous ballad and the Cure, Hoffman slyly shadowing Carter’s scrambling solo, Carrott pushing even further into anthemic territory.
For You comes across as a stormy latin ballad, from a distance, a catchy, acerbic theme that Carrott edges toward balmier territory until the bandleader pulls it back, almost exasperatedly. A slinky implied clave contrasts with the rustling of the strings in the album’s closing number, The Heights of Spectacle, Hoffman tightly unwinding a mutedly plucky solo: sarcasm could be running high here. You’ll be humming this one afterward.