Artemis, in a new configuration, hits its target with 'In Real Time'
“At dawn you shall appear,” augured the English poet Robert Graves, “A gaunt, red-legged crane.” Graves, in his 1947 poem ‘Return of the Goddess Artemis,’ was imagining a celestial deity in the earthiest of settings: as a wading bird in a humble wetland, thicketed with alder shrubs and a bubbling spring. A community of frogs in the poem cower “in terror of your judgment day,” hoping only to be spared. But Artemis — goddess of the hunt, and of wilderness and nature besides — isn’t known to miss her mark.
So it goes with another Artemis now making a heralded return. I’m referring to the all-star improvising collective by that name, which released a worthy debut on Blue Note Records in 2020. An even more accomplished follow-up, In Real Time, arrives this week, strengthening the band’s claim to a rare status in the teeming ecology of modern jazz.
While we’re talking ecologies: an Ingrid Jensen composition meaningfully titled “Timber,” near the album’s midpoint, conveys some defining elements of this group’s style. Opening with an atmospheric swirl over a pedal tone, the tune coalesces around a Wayne Shorterish melody before pivoting to an ostinato in 7/4 meter. Jensen’s trumpet is the lead voice, but you sense equal investment from Renee Rosnes on Fender Rhodes, Noriko Ueda on bass and Allison Miller on drums. And during a vamp set in a bobbing common time, we hear brief but memorable statements from the band’s two youngest and newest members: Alexa Tarantino, on alto saxophone, and Nicole Glover, on tenor. (More on each of them in a moment.)
“Lights Away From Home,” a swinging Ueda tune, also draws inspiration from the natural world: she composed its melody after watching a meteor shower on an island in upstate New York. Again, the composerly influence that springs most readily to mind is Shorter, whose early writing for a quintet with Lee Morgan worked a similar balance of rhythmic drive and harmonic shading. Like Sound Prints, another superlative combo in the post-bop lineage, Artemis wears this affinity as a badge of honor: the new album concludes with a warmly expressive rubato reading of Shorter’s ballad “Penelope.”
But if In Real Time functions as a tribute to anything — beyond the cohesive intuition of its own members — it isn’t Shorter in particular so much as the mid-1960s Blue Note sound in general. This probably isn’t intentional. Rather, it’s a lingua franca for these exemplary musicians, present in the texture of their writing and the character of their solos. A keyed-in listener will hear passing echoes of vintage Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson and Andrew Hill, but never in a way that veers into imitation.
Case in point: an intricate, forward-tumbling Rosnes composition called “Empress Afternoon” — first heard more than 20 years ago on Life on Earth, also a Blue Note release — opens up to a tenor solo by Glover, whose muezzin-like multiphonic approach recalls Henderson circa Mode For Joe. But her tone is more robust than Joe’s, and before you have much time to fix those coordinates, Rosnes takes over with her own unplaceable cascade across the keys.
Glover and Tarantino have stepped into pre-existing roles in the band, respectively replacing tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana and multi-reedist Anat Cohen. Impressively, they add so much of their own personality to the proceedings that comparisons feel entirely beside the point. The heft and grain of Glover’s tone, and the surprising turns in her phrasing, make her a wildcard improviser in this company. And Tarantino’s brisk and silvery alto playing is supplemented by some expert work on flute, notably in her own polyrhythmic mid-tempo waltz, aptly titled “Whirlwind” (and redolent of the mid-‘60s tone palette of Bobby Hutcherson).
At the same time, the musicians who convey the most authority from within the ensemble are its senior members — principally Rosnes, who also contributes a pellucid ballad, “Balance of Time,” and a brilliant arrangement of “Slink,” an intricately contrapuntal piece by Lyle Mays. Jensen, who can sound steely or shadowy on her horn, in or out of a rhythmic pocket, maintains a riveting presence throughout the album. And Miller is simply bolstering her reputation as one of our most exacting and exhilarating drummers now working in the jazz tradition — as well as a composer who truly understands the assignment. Her “Bow and Arrow” is one of the moments that evokes the sextet writing of Andrew Hill, eliciting dynamic outpourings from Jensen, Glover and the composer herself. As the song’s title suggests, Miller has Artemis clearly in mind: a fearsome and inspiring vision, pulling the string taut as she fixes her target.
Artemis’ In Real Time releases on Blue Note this Friday; preorder here.