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Scott Colley: An 'Empire' On The Prairie

Scott Colley named his new album, Empire, for a sod-house Kansas hamlet where his ancestors settled after the Civil War -- not the Empire, Kansas, near Lake Kanopolis, but a short-lived community near McPherson on the prairie, abandoned in the 1870s when the railroad passed it by. Colley's not from those parts, but his music fits the wide-open flatlands, where you can see the weather coming on. For extra rural twang, he's got Bill Frisell on bluesy country jazz guitar.

Colley's slow, singing bass nods to his old teacher Charlie Haden, the Missouri bassist with a touch of the Ozarks in his sound. Colley's Empire is for various combinations of five musicians, including pianist Craig Taborn (known for rambunctious playing with James Carter), Tim Berne and Dave Douglas. In his solos here, Taborn catches the stillness of sparsely populated landscapes: He makes a few notes carry far. It's all in the touch and the timing, and in the quiet support from Brian Blade's drums.

This music's spine is made of wires and wood: the ringing tones of bass, piano and guitar. The lone horn player is trumpeter Ralph Alessi, whose pealing sound lends Copland-esque grandeur to the amber waves. He and Frisell stir things up a little, too, to make sure the music's not contemplative all the time.

Colley's lyrical and catchy tunes bring Empire halfway home, but it's the players who complete the job; who breathe life into the frameworks he builds. This is heartland music born in Manhattan. Not Manhattan, Kansas -- the other one.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.