February 28th, 2018 | Album reviews

The Optimist
World Galaxy / Alpha Pup

Almost exactly ten years ago, a group of young players intent on changing the face of jazz gathered together in a small, sweltering room in Inglewood to record Ryan Porter‘s music. The Shack—AKA saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s parents’ basement—was located under the LAX landing strip, so windows were shut tight during recording sessions, as up to eight musicians at a time packed into the room. Together, the band rode waves of crazy energy—a sonic Big Bang that has, all these years later, reverberated through American pop culture. The recordings here, which comprise the majority of the cuts on The Optimist, Porter’s second record in two years, are bursting with that energy. Most of the soloing is verbose, surging with electricity. Washington predictably steals the show, but organist Cameron Graves turns in thrilling, knotty leads of his own. Bassist Miles Mosley and a rotating cast of drummers jump from be-bop to R&B to loose basement funk. Meanwhile, Porter’s leads are languid and sweet, riding a few feet above the fray. In contrast to the sweeping strings and emotive runs of Washington’s The Epic, The Optimist is grounded in tight grooves, staccato riffs, and the sound of the Fender Rhodes. Tracks like “Deja Vu,” “Night Court in Compton”—an extended vamp on Jack Elliott’s Night Court theme—and “Chocolate Nuisance” recall late-night Manhattan cab rides more than glimmering California landscapes. But it’s a bright, hopeful record overall, as the title and brilliant yellow cover suggest. As Porter points out in the liner notes, The Optimist is partially a tribute to the hope that surrounded the 2008 election of Barack Obama, which happened during the album sessions. “At that moment,” Porter writes, “I made it a point not to give up on the dreams and goals I’ve set out for myself and to persevere no matter how hard the obstacles may be.” It is that optimism that imbues these ecstatic recordings—the same optimism that drove Porter and his comrades to the forefront of contemporary jazz, and the same optimism we may need to see us through less-hopeful times.

—Chris Kissel