Odean Pope - "Custody of the American Spirit" (Universal Sounds)
There’s always something introspective about tenor saxophonist Odean Pope’s work. No matter how powerful his playing gets, he holds something in reserve. Or maybe it’s better to say that he maintains calm beneath the storm, expressing a depth and beauty that uncontrolled fire often masks. Players like the dearly missed Fred Anderson made music in a similar way, as does his long-time friend and collaborator Kidd Jordan. I hadn’t really observed this quality in Pope’s work until Universal Sounds brought it into focus.
The opening track tells the story. “Custody of the American Spirit” begins with a bass drone from Lee Smith that fosters such a mood, with Marshall Allan’s instantly recognizable EWI (a.k.a. electronic wind instrument) swelling and ebbing in sympathy. Encircling it all is a torrent of triads and runs from Pope, in one huge arc of circular breathing that gradually fades and disappears. Despite the plethora of notes Pope’s laying down, a certain staticity remains. After the percussionists, including Warren Smith, Craig McIver and Jim Hamilton, heat things up with an increasing web of multilayered tympani strokes, snaps, metallic rattles and vocal exhortations, the two saxophonists return, floating a melody that is both serene and somehow highly charged, the calm above the storm. It is as powerful a statement as I’ve heard from a Pope-led group in some time.
After such a cataclysmic opening statement, it is good to report that the rest of the disc is both varied and excellent. There is the stunningly forceful “Binder,” where Pope meditates his way through another beautiful solo, and Allan really lets loose in 1960s Coltrane mode as the percussionists roil underneath. It is flabbergasting that Allan can bring on such energy in his mid-80s. Contrast that barnburner with the wistful “She Smiled again,” replete with Pope’s exquisite multiphonics, to get a flavor for the disc’s scope.
The band is as good as any I’ve heard behind the veteran saxophonist. Special mention must be made, as usual, of Smith’s tympani work, as nobody in the business approaches them with the control and invention he exhibits in every gesture.