First of all, Jack DeJohnette fans should know that the musical, incisive drummer is all over Bailador with sleek beats and funky combinations that recall his work in Special Edition and New Directions, without stinting on more nuanced, complementary support when the tunes warrant. DeJohnette was a priority choice for Michel Portal, who is an intrepid, towering figure on the French jazz scene, renowned for his eclectic command of idioms that span the works of classical composers such as Schumann and Mozart to groundbreaking sessions that fostered the right ambiance and interplay for free improvisation. In fact, Portal — who was in his mid 70s when Bailador was recorded in 2010 — claims this is the first time he has finished composing the material before entering the studio. Along with enlisting DeJohnette, he tapped trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire to join him on the front line, switching from his standard b-flat clarinet to bass clarinet and alto and soprano saxophones to generate a more consonant tonal mesh with Akinmusire's brass during their frequent unison passages. The other members of this brilliant band are bassist Scott Colley, Bosnian pianist Bojan Z (who also produced the disc), and, on the first four tracks, the Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke.
"Dolce" sets the tone of adventurous propulsion at the outset, with Loueke's plucked notes joined by the interlocking stutter of drums and bass in a taut, skewed groove, like a sprinter with a limp. The horns join in chorus, sounding like Fela's Afrobeat when Portal's bass clarinet predominates, then shifting into more of a fusion mode until first Portal and then Bojan Z deliver spirited solos with DeJohnette marking the trail. The title track leads off with a classic shuffle beat from DeJohnette, the sort of carefree funk-blues with high-hat cymbal accents that make you jiggle your shoulders. The pianist and Portal, this time in a higher register on the bass clarinet, take the solos, but it is the rhythm carpet laid down by Colley, Loueke and DeJohnette that distinguishes the song.
And so it goes. Akinmusire finally gets a chance to strut on "Cuba Si, Cuba No" (which isn't overtly Cuban), and his expansive timbre and surging phrasing give the impression of emergence and stepping forward, akin to Freddie Hubbard in his younger days on Blue Note. "Ombres" (or "Shadows") is a compelling duet between Portal's bass clarinet and Loueke's guitar that takes its time, avoids grandiosity and impresses with its mixture of generous attitude and thorough invention. "Alto Blues" is the most entropic and improvisatory-oriented piece on the disc. There is a Latin bop feel to "Citrus Juice" by the organist Eddy Louiss (with whom Portal played as far back as 1965), a burning toe-tapper with Portal on soprano and the rhythm section again in fine fettle. "One on One" is a DeJohnette composition brimming with energy, with Colley taking his bass for a vigorous walk (and later bowing to good effect), DeJohnette delivering a pair of solos and everyone grabbing the spotlight at some point in the 11 minutes. By contrast, "Tutti No Hysterique," is a short and sweet closer.