Hugh Fraser brings bravado to Mike Allen’s big quartet

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Mike Allen Quartet with Hugh Fraser
Panorama (Cellar Live)

Panorama is nominally saxophonist Mike Allen’s album; it’s his name that’s shown in big type on the cover. But a close look at the credits reveals that pianist Miles Black plays a key role, with three compositional credits to the leader’s seven, and the resultant diversity is just one of this impressive record’s charms. Black’s lyrical constructions slip in and out of sentimentality—“San Miguel”, in particular, walks a dangerous line between beauty and bathos—but generally offer gentle counterpoint to Allen’s often harder-edged and more technically challenging pieces.

The aptly titled “Labyrinth” is a good example of Allen’s approach. Based around a long, winding line that hints at both Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, it spools forward with so much momentum that it almost tricks the ear into hearing a big band—especially toward the end, when Allen and guest trombone star Hugh Fraser play the head in punchy, forceful unison before breaking into richly effective harmony.

Fraser is a great addition to Allen’s regular quartet, adding warmth and bravado in equal measure, but the four core members—who include bassist Adam Thomas and drummer Julian MacDonough—have developed an easy rapport over their several years together. That this is so well showcased here might be Panorama’s greatest achievement.

The Mike Allen Quartet plays a free TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival show at Performance Works on Canada Day (July 1).

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