DOWN THE LINE, the second CD by composer and pianist Bruce Torff for Summit Records, comprises 11 original tunes penned by Torff, showcasing his considerable talents as an inventive composer with a modern jazz sensibility.
The death of a childhood friend at age 50 in a plane crash precipitated the creation of this CD. It began by Torff composing “Memoriam” as a way of processing his grief. The tune is soulful yet uplifting – a celebration of a life rather than a dirge. After completing the Brazilian-tinged “Memoriam,” Torff composed the rest of the CD, laying down a variety of tracks including keyboards, mallets, bass and percussion.
The CD covers a wide musical and emotional range, from the space-age “Enceladus” to the pensive and gorgeous “Wave of Silence,” both of which feature spot-on improvisations by saxophonist Joel Frahm. Frahm has released several critically acclaimed CDs as a leader and appeared on Torff’s last release, Look Again (2013). Torff says of Frahm, “He’s an extraordinarily intuitive player. He hones in on the emotional vibe of a tune and plays whatever’s necessary to achieve the right feeling.”
The title cut, “Down the Line,” brings an infectious shuffle funk groove and searing guitar work by Pete McCann, whom Torff calls “an idea factory.” The stroke tune “Last Dispatch from the Road to Hell” does much to live up to its ominous title. “Tribal Function,” an unapologetic festival of groove, sets the tone you might want at your next party, as is the toe tapping, back-beat tune “Well of Tears.”
Elsewhere the CD takes a more gentle approach. “This I Promise You” offers a tender note of reassurance – and affecting trumpet work from the late Lew Soloff. Soloff, who also added his unique sound on “Early Sunday,” made this recording just two weeks before he passed away suddenly from a heart attack in March 2015. Because it is believed to be Soloff’s last recorded work, “Early Sunday” was positioned as the last track on the CD, as the tune ends with a gently fading trumpet note. Torff says, “Lew Soloff was an artful and meticulous musician. During the session, he sight-sang the songs before playing anything, and he was hell-bent to make sure he played what the composer envisioned. I’m honored that he played on the CD.”
And there’s resonant beauty in “Beginning to End,” which combines a haunting melody with a pitch-perfect sax solo that pleasantly calls to mind the late Grover Washington, Jr.
The band is completed by Ben Wittman on drums. Wittman has worked with numerous jazz and pop artists, from New York Voices to Sting.
Rather than approaching musical composition from a harmonic perspective, Torff often begins with conjuring an appealing groove. As Torff says, “When I write, I usually hear a groove first, either a bass line or a drum lick. I then build different layers of melodies and voicings. The main thing is that the music has to be both accessible and adventurous.”
Torff cites Brazilian music as a major influence on his writing, which is apparent not only in many of the rhythms he employs, but also in his lovely melodies. The Brazilian influence shines on tunes such as “This I Promise You,” “Memoriam,” “Once and For All,” and “Beginning to End.”
Torff is a true polymath. Born and raised in the Chicago area from a family that also produced Brian Torff, the renowned bass player, Torff received a master’s degree the New England Conservatory of Music before earning two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education from Harvard. Although music has always been central to Torff, he built a highly successful career as a professor of educational psychology at Hofstra University, a college near New York City. He has over 80 scholarly publications to his credit, including the book, “Understanding and Teaching the Intuitive Mind.”
DOWN THE LINE is an exceptional contribution from a composer whose work deserves wide recognition. An outstanding melodist, Torff’s approach to composition is modern and fresh, eschewing tropes from the past and looking forward to new modes of expression.
DOWN THE LINE is available on Amazon and iTunes.
You can sample Torff’s work from DOWN THE LINE on a Soundcloud link featuring the title track, ”Down The Line”: https://soundcloud.com/mouthpiece-music/down-the-line.