Like traffic, music can be free-flowing, bustling, impatient or static. Pianist/composer Chris Cody begins his tribute to the great French writer Albert Camus with the frenetic Procession, inspired by an African funeral parade that Cody witnessed. The rhythm initially churns beneath the stabbing melody before skittering through a second section. The soloists – Michael Avgenicos’s storming tenor saxophone followed by Cody’s sprightly piano – then traverse these two grooves.
It’s a high-revving way to start the album, while also lulling us into a sense of security that’s immediately dashed by John Robinson’s solo oud introduction to the aptly named Anticipation. Now we grasp the scope of Cody’s ambition for his suite, and learn we’re going to be led into darker corners of the human psyche as well as more carefree ones. The ensemble section is so taut that you fear something might snap, and when Robinson’s oud returns, yes, it eases that tension, but with a melancholy verging on being grief-stricken. Cody’s answer is lighter: a different form of release.
The title track, named for Camus’ most famous novel, lets us catch our collective breaths, while being hugely evocative. As I said when reviewing its premiere performance 18 months ago, it suggests disappointment dressed up in fedoras and overcoats. You can almost see cigarette smoke curling into the damp night sky, as a stranger to inclusivity observes what passes for the rest of humanity. The ensemble work is elegantly layered, with Avgenicos’s saxophone solo catching the mood of one walking deserted city streets in the wee hours. Cody’s piano picks up on this resignation, making it both prettier and sadder: an elusive beauty.
Contemplation of the absurdity of life is swiftly shrugged aside by Simon Ferenci’s trumpet slicing its way through the opening of La Goutte D’Or, which is an Algerian neighbourhood in Paris. The wild ride continues with Adem Yilmaz’s frenzied percussion against Lloyd Swanton’s bass and James Waples’ drums. Catching the Bug has a brief free improvisation, before the band races into straight-ahead jazz mode, the rhythm section wonderfully lithe and sinewy as Avgenicos skates across the top, before beckoning Alex Silver for a jauntier trombone foray, which, in turn, is capped by Ferenci’s scything, boppish lines.
Cody has cleverly structured his suite to blend logical transitions with jolting surprises. The Truth is certainly among the latter: a 12/8 piece of gospel, with the tenor testifying as though Avegenicos’ immortal soul depended on it. We leave the church to enter the charms of Alone, which mixes French impressionism with a jazz waltz – perhaps an inkling what may have happened had Erik Satie and Bill Evans been able to collaborate. Here Cody hands the foreground to Swanton, who fills it with elegiac musings, and leaves the rampant lyricism to the pianist, while Cody’s opulent ensemble harmonies suggest a much bigger band than it is.
The solo piano of Reflection functions as a prelude to the mix of longing and nostalgia that haunts Waiting for You. This builds in intensity as each solo unfolds, until, nine minutes later, you’re confronted by a strong hunch that the person never arrived. It encapsulates much about Cody’s compositional sophistication on this, his finest album, as does the spartan way in which he often uses the ensemble colours available to him. Expert improvisers they may be, but this is not a blowing band so much as one assembled to fulfil a vision.