Justin Mullens is known for his work as an instrumentalist, composer and bandleader in pushing the boundaries of the French Horn as an improvising instrument in jazz. "The Cornucopiad," his new Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records release plays new compositions along with thee standards to display his flair as a improvisor as well as composer. He is accompanied with his octet that also includes Chris Cheek (Alto Sax & Clarinet), Peter Hess (Bass Clarinet), Ohad Talmor (Tenor Sax), Peter Thompson (Guitar), Desmond White (Bass), Matt Ray (Piano), and Marko Djordjevic (Drums).
While the French Horn has often been used to add tonal colors, Mullens is at the forefront of expanding the instruments role, borrowing technique more in line with what might expect from a saxophonist or trumpeter, yet still retaining the character of the French Horn. While featuring his playing, this recording also provides plenty of space for the various members to display their various talents. The leader opens the soloing on Freddie Hubbard's "Hub-Tones" and the tonal quality is not far from a trombone. He is followed by a sharp, yet dry-toned tenor sax solo, then piano and then guitarist Thompson whose ostinato figure first provides a foundation for Djordjevic and then the ensemble to conclude the performance.
After a brief short horn-guitar duo, one of three originals, "Amalthea," (named after the goat-nymph that reared Zeus, who accidentally broke off her horn which became the cornucopia), the displays not simply the leader's compositional skills but the wonderful tones of the ensemble with the bass clarinet helping fill out the bottom. White is featured on bass before Mullens solos with Thompson chording in support and certainly further demonstrates his skill and imagination. Two other originals "The Goatfish" (named after Aegipan, Amalthea's son who was reared with Zeus) and "The River Horn" (refers to the horn of Amalthea that Heracles received after battling the river god Achelous).
Mullens provides a very fresh setting for "You Stepped Out Of A Dream," with a bit of funk at the opening before he at first embellishes off the melody before crafting a solo taking off from the song's structure with considerable imagination and followed by Thompson's solo which also displays similar invention followed by Hess' woody bass clarinet before Mullens restates the melody for the coda. The octet also treats listeners to a very imaginative and lovely rendition of John Coltrane's "Naima," with Cheek contributing a bright solo on alto sax. The briskly paced "River Horn" first spotlights Talmor's singing tenor sax followed by Mullens spirited soloing and then Hess' serpentine bass clarinet.
"The Cornucopiad," is much more than a novelty of a jazz recording featuring a French Horn. Mullens certainly shows it to be quite capable of being more than part of an horn section and with his Octet has produced a recording that contains marvelous original compositions and quite original renditions of familiar standards that result in very wonderful listening.
I received my review copy from a publicist. This review originally appeared in the March-April 2016 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 365). Here is the Justin Mullens Octet performing "You Stepped Out Of a Dream," at Smalls in Greenwich Village, New York City.