On Im•pro•vise (Never Before Seen), Sean Jones shows a phenomenal mid-career growth spurt as a trumpeter, composer and artist. He credits Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, who challenged him to become more of a leader during their Tribute to Miles tour in 2011, a year after Jones left a long stint as the lead trumpeter for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Jones hasn’t reinvented himself or his style — he’s just become a much better version of the musician he used to be, fueled by a calm but self-animating confidence. Hence his decision to record his longstanding quartet in the same room, without overdubs, for the first time. You hear it in the way he peels out notes with a small but significant new degree of clarity and concision on the opener, “60th and Broadway” (a tribute to Lincoln Center), or the way he winds down the mood and then rebuilds for a stunning climax on the “The Morning After.”
Jones has long been capable of the stately melodrama and technical aplomb reminiscent of one of his mentors, Wynton Marsalis. But the depth of his communication with pianist Orrin Evans (who is enjoying his own chrysalis in 2014) on “Dark Times,” and his choice of “Dr. Jekyll” as a way to honor both Jackie McLean (the composer) and Miles Davis (the song’s best-known interpreter) are examples of how his collaborative vision has ascended into leadership. His command is infectious, as the quartet has never sounded more dynamic, especially drummer Obed Calvaire. They take familiar vehicles — the self-explanatory “I Don’t Give a Damn Blues,” the nightclub standard, “How High the Moon” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” — out on invigorating new journeys.
Im•pro•vise is the best of the seven albums Sean Jones has made for Mack Avenue in the past 10 years. Perhaps he’ll top it, but it has the heft, vigor and timeless verities to stand comfortably as his masterpiece.