Like San Francisco’s Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra, which is led by bassist Shelby, or Chi-Town’s Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, which is led by trumpeter Orbert Davis, Albany has its own neighborhood outfit: saxophonist Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble, which brings in a crowd (like the ones seated for these live recordings) weekly to Tess’s Lark Tavern. On this, the band’s debut release, the Capital District’s finest dig into compositions by Pray, pianist Yuko Kishimoto,Kenny Siegel guitarist/journalist John Dworkin, and saxman Brian Patneaude. The ensemble’s cohesive sonance is formed by pieces with built-in elasticity, like Pray’s deliciously swinging “Walkin’ the Dog” and the tranquil “I Remember Roland.” Just as Shelby and Davis do, Pray teaches as well as composes, and he grooves in other groups: his Soul Jazz Revival and his quartet. His “The Other Funk” and the disarming “The Gate (A Portrait of the Mohawk)” reflect his penchant for soulful sounds.
Despite (and maybe because of) their high energy, the brass and winds flash some faulty intonation, clunkers, and flubs in noticeable spots. But there is redemption to be found in Kishimoto’s “Elements” and Dworkin’s “Renee.” The soloists throughout the recording are superb. Live at the Lark Tavern carries on conversations between tradition and contemporary idioms and demonstrates how Pray pivots on the present and past in order for the music to breathe and grow outward from the bandstand. As trumpeter Nicholas Payton says, “In order to find the way, you must leave the way. You have to be open.” www.keithpray.com.