As a musician, Collins is the complete package: performer, composer, bandleader. This we know from his 2007 debut Valcour, when he was largely introduced to the world as a vibraphonist with great range and inventiveness in the manner of Bobby Hutcherson. On that record, he led a sextet of equally hungry young players over a dynamic set of songs. But there has always been more to this master’s degree graduate from Manhattan School of Music than just jazz. Around the time of his debut, he made a rock record with Mike Pedersen as Elephantbear, playing drums and piano and well as vibes. His second solo album Fade also mined rock territory and the presence of Charlie Hunter and a string quartet helped to put it farther outside the bounds of mainstream jazz. For Collins’ third album, he distills the lessons learned from these excursions—as well as stints with Hunter, John Hollenbeck, Marty Erlich, John Ellis, Aaron Parks, Sam Barsh and George Porter, Jr.—to come up with Castles And Hilltops.
Conceived in his newly adopted country of Germany but recorded back in Brooklyn with his old cohorts, Castles And Hilltops steps on the gas a little more compared with Valcour and is also a leaner, meaner ensemble, composed of Collins, Danny Grissett (piano), Tommy Crane (drums), and Valcour holdover Matt Clohesy (bass). It seems Collins was eager to get back into modern jazz and expand on the mark he made there with his debut, using a smaller ensemble.
Collins wastes no time showing off what he and his new band can do. “TNT” moves catlike over an intelligent melody that allows each of the players to stretch out both individually and as a cohesive unit. Crane creates some interesting, multi-dimensional grooves and the rest of the group just feeds off of that. On the second line driven “Army Brat,” plays his vibes Big Easy style; if there wasn’t New Orleans-styled way to play the vibraphone, well, Collins just invented one.
Ever cognizant of rock, Collins covers a couple of tunes from that realm. Unlocking the rich melodic secrets hidden in Bjork’s songs, Collins takes on “The Anchor Song,” roughly mimicking Bjork’s punctuated vocals with his vibes and leading the band in creating the same solemn tone but with completely different instruments than the brass of the original. Petty’s “Into The Great Wide Open” is a better known tune but also a bigger surprise in this setting, a slow-moving version that’s faithful to the original melody but doesn’t quite click like the Bjork cover.
Perhaps the best track overall is “Pond” (Youtube below), a crisp, complex harmony full of surprising little turns and energy and deeply involves Grissett, Clohesy and Crane in some deft maneuvering. Nearly as good is “The Tunnel,” which boasts some exceptional interplay among Collins, Grissett and Clohesy. “From Above” is another strong composition, and showcases Grissett’s crisp, post-bop articulations as a soloist.
More often than not, though, it’s the ensemble performances of intelligently written songs, not the solos, that grabs you when listening to this album. That’s what Collins intended: “That to me is far more important than my soloing on the vibes. It’s definitely an ensemble recording.” Castles And Hilltops succeeds as an ensemble recording but moreover, it succeeds as a Tim Collins recording. He continues to raise his game in all aspects, and is becoming a force as a vibes player who is increasingly hard to ignore.
Castles And Hilltops will be released September 15 by Nineteen-Eight Records.