Some of the most interesting jazz takes place outside of the major cities and centers. Commons Collective, a quintet headed by pianist Jon Snell, was formed in 2011 by young musicians who were attending the University of Northern Iowa. They originally came together as part of a school ensemble coached by educator Bob Washut and have had an independent existence ever since. Hope is their fourth CD.
As on their other recordings, Hope consists of originals contributed by the members of the group. The quintet, which is comprised of pianist Snell, saxophonist Nolan Schroeder (mostly heard on tenor and soprano), trombonist Brian Crew, bassist Joel Conrad, and drummer Christopher Jensen, features excellent musicianship, a consistent willingness to stretch themselves, and an attractive group sound.
The music of Hope unfolds like a suite. The opener, “The Wind,” starts with a fanfare and includes some prominent trombone playing from Crew and an impressive piano solo from Snell that sets the stage for what is to come. It leads into the thoughtful but optimistic “Hope” which has the ensemble playing over hand-clapping that uses a rhythm that is a variation on soca music from Trinidad and Tobago. The performance includes another fine spot for Crew along with a quiet ending. “Electric Shoes” is a bit funky but unpredictable, highlighted by a spirited tenor-trombone-piano tradeoff.
“Green Fig Tree” begins as a melancholy ballad featuring an attractive blend of Schroeder’s soprano and Crew’s trombone. After a thoughtful piano solo, it concludes with a hopeful feeling. “Public School” is a bluesy romp that is often quite jubilant. The danceable bass line, catchy riffing, colorful interplay between the two horns, and soulful piano and bass solos make this a particularly memorable performance.
“Gentle Thought,” an attractive jazz waltz, has an adventurous tenor solo by Schroeder and an introspective spot from pianist Snell. The moody “Kite Fighter” includes particularly rewarding and expressive improvisations from Snell and Schroeder (who creates a stormy statement on tenor). Hope concludes with the infectious “Always Not Nearly” which is highlighted by concise but meaningful soprano, trombone and piano solos.
Throughout their CD, Commons Collective shows that there is plenty of fine modern jazz talent to be heard in Iowa. Hope is easily recommended.
— Scott Yanow, jazz journalist/historian and author of 11 books including The Great Jazz Guitarists, Jazz On Film and Jazz On Record 1917-76