Bassist Boris Kozlov Makes Posi-Tone Debut Via Stirring, Eclectic ‘First Things First’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Fans and followers of the Posi-Tone label, will acknowledge that the bassist in the core rhythm section for many recent releases is the Mingus-inspired bassist Boris Kozlov, paired with drummer Rudy Royston and keyboardist Art Hirahara. Joining them for Kozlov’s label debut as a leader, First Things First, is another frequent label mate, vibraphonist Behn Gillece, and Kozlov’s former bandleader, acclaimed tenor saxophonist/ flutist Donny McCaslin. This is Kozlov’s third album and follows his solo bass effort, 2010’s Double Standard, inspired by his work as director of the Mingus Dynasty Band, and as a bandleader, 2016’s Conversations at the Well with Royston and guitarist David Gilmore. Here then is his largest configuration, a quintet, playing eleven compositions, most from the leader, with others from three members. For sake of tradition, they close the album with a Mingus tune.

This writer learned through Kozlov directly that these recordings are a result of sessions set up in New York during the height of the pandemic in August of 2020. The first four days yielded Hirahara’s Open Sky and Gillece’s Still Doing Our Thing, the latter of which was covered on these pages. Subsequent sessions followed with label head Marc Free suggesting this debut for Kozlov. Unlike so many of the label’s mainstream recordings, this one mixes some of those strains while also venturing into intriguing and colorful improvisational territory. As this writer recently witnessed through a quintet performance led by the fiery trumpeter Brian Lynch, Kozlov not only provides a solid foundation with his bass playing but even as a sideman, his smiling, reliable ‘chops up’ presence projects natural leadership.

Kozlov draws on several influences in his compositions but there is a clear bent to both the bluesy echoes of Mingus and traditional Russian folk forms. The quintet begins with “Page One,” written by McCaslin and inspired by the late great saxophonist, Joe Henderson, who happens to be Kozlov’s all-time favorite. Gillece gives a dancing solo with Hirahara comping on Rhodes before making his own swinging statement. He then yields to the leader, who plays both upright, electric, and piccolo basses in the session, soloing with the former here. “Flow,” a Kozlov piece, is a meditation featuring dialogue between McCaslin’s alto flute and Gillece’s tinkling vibes as Kozlov provides acoustic underpinning and Royston delivers percussion just with his hands, no drum set needed. Hirahara chips in with his mid-tempo “The More Things Change” as McCaslin blows melodically (and majestically) on his tenor, carrying the brunt of the melody that morphs into some free blowing followed by a swinging turn from Gillece, all with Kozlov’s robust double bass resonating prominently before the group returns to the head.

Kozlov’s blistering “I. S. Adventure” nods to composer Igor Stravinsky, who was not only influential to Kozlov but to Mingus as well. This is a feature for Royston’s brilliant work on the kit, taken at a furious, blues-based tempo centered on the folksy fourth intervals heard in Stravinsky’s most famous work, “The Rite of Spring.” McCaslin rips off some rapid runs here, backed by a highly propulsive rhythm section that eventually finds Royston soloing. The leader’s epic, reflective “Aftermath” follows, with an emotive intro from pianist Hirahara into a rather ethereal tone led by McCaslin’s deliberate ballad playing, a hypnotic turn from Gillece, and capped off by a deeply expressive tenor declaration.

Kozlov relives some of his days playing as a sideman in McCaslin’s bands with the saxophonist’s tune, “Second Line Sally,” rendered here as an up-tempo soul-blues with the leader on electric bass and Hirahara all over the B3 as McCaslin blows a storm. From perhaps the most straightforward tune we then go to the edgiest, most improvisational one on the album for “Viscous” which finds Kozlov playing a haunting bowed bass in a radical harmonic context with free collective soloing that while wandering into several directions somehow remains cohesive enough with Kozlov’s steady hand and the intent listening among the players. The quintet says out on the edge for “Mind Palace,” composed by Gillece. Beginning as a dialogue between the bassist and McCaslin’s alto flute, McCaslin then takes up the tenor and begins a series of improvisations picked up by the others until Royston regathers the group for the climax. 

The image of warm sand is conveyed in the song of the same title with Gillece leading with 4-voice chords as the tenor is an octave below, both enveloped in a sense by Kozlov’s robust bass plucking. Hirahara shines in an especially bright piano sequence. Kozlov summons the traditional Russian folk forms in “Once a Fog in Babylon,” is a medley of few songs of old Russian music taught to him by a college professor, as McCaslin on alto flute and Kozlov on the bowed bass transport us to yesteryear before the combination of Gillece and Hirahara’s church sounding organ evokes a village bustling with celebratory joy.  Another segment has McCaslin on tenor in a playful duet with Royston before Hirahara’s organ and Kozlov’s bass enter the fray. Finally, and not surprisingly, the one cover, the closing “Eclipse” pays respectful tribute to the bassist’s most important mentor, Mingus. Concerning Mingus, you may want to check out the January Posi-Tone Release – Blue Moods-Myth and Wisdom, wherein Kozlov, Hirahara, saxophonist Diego Rivera, drummer Joe Strasser, and pianist for three tracks, David Kikoski, deliver an album of Mingus interpretations.

Not only is this an auspicious label debut, as we’d expect from the talented bassist and composer, but its several diverse styles contribute to it being among the most eclectic and rewarding listens in the Posi-Tone catalog.

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