Extension Deadline Review - Art Of Cool

Ben Gray
Staff Writer

Looking back over historical jazz releases, we tend to celebrate the albums that, in hindsight, redefine the genre. That is for good reason, but it is well worth celebrating the albums with great musicians playing great music – there’s not much better than a well-played blues. Recently I found myself digging into Donald Byrd’s albums from the early 1960s. These are great albums – excellent playing from his quintet, mostly built on the blues, and the most satisfying parts of these albums may be the least genre-defying. Alex Norris’ excellent new album Extension Deadline, with Norris on trumpet, Gary Thomas on sax, George Colligan on organ, and Rudy Royston on drums, fills a similar space. Extension Deadline is full of catchy themes, great solos and a strong group dynamic. Although it was released in 2015, much of this album could have grown from some of the same soil that Royal Flush grew from (though given the instrumentation here, something like Larry Young’s Unity might come to mind as well). There is innovation on Extension Deadline, but the most satisfying thing about the album is the deceptively simple way that the band members interact with each other, swinging throughout.

Norris has only released one album as a leader prior to this outing, 2000’s A New Beginning, but he has chops to spare and has recorded in many different settings as a sideman. All of the tunes on Extension Deadline are originals from Norris, with the exception of George Colligan’s “Optimism" and a trio version of Bobby Hutcherson’s “Little B’s Poem". Norris opens the album with a lyrical solo on the title track after the band plays through the head, and once it’s established here, most of the album stays in a solid medium-tempo groove. Rudy Royston and George Colligan as the rhythm section play a huge role on this album, with Royston’s swinging drums driving the album forward and Colligan’s organ adding bass, harmony, and melody.

“What Happened Here?" is a particular highlight, with organ chords punctuating the bassline and punchy horns filling out the very catchy head. After playing through the tune’s head, they move into an organ solo from Colligan that touches on the tune’s theme while coming up with a great, innovative solo. The interaction here, as throughout the album, between Colligan and Royston is fantastic. Following Colligan’s solo, Norris’ trumpet solo is also great, moving farther from the tune’s theme while Royston’s cymbals crash behind him. Thomas’ sax solo follows over the ride cymbal and kick drum rhythm. Royston and Colligan build in intensity along with the sax solo, and then Royston takes a drum solo as the theme is played by the organ. “What Happened Here?" is perhaps the catchiest individual tune on the album, but every tune on the album delivers great solos and group interaction.

If there is any complaint to be made about Extension Deadline, it would be that while these tunes are clearly fleshed out and lived in, there can be a certain sameness to the album. Much of this album has a mid-tempo to up-tempo swinging groove with unison lines from the trumpet and sax. “Little B’s Poem" is an exception, with a ballad tempo and Thomas’ sax sitting out the tune. And I should say that this is a minor quibble, given the strength of the playing here. Extension Deadline is an excellent straight-ahead set from the Alex Norris quartet that I’m sure will stay in rotation. Just as you won’t find yourself complaining about the classic straight-ahead jazz that serves as the template for this album, you’ll find plenty to dig into here. Hopefully this quartet can continue to work together and we can hope that the next Norris album will not be another fifteen years away.