A few seconds with Sarah Manning’s cutting and passionate alto and it comes as no surprise that one of her key early mentors was none other than Jackie McLean. Manning also studied with Yusef Lateef on one leg of a cross-coastal odyssey that eventually ended in New York City. This quartet set, her debut for Positone, displays the logical benefits of those peregrinations. Manning officiates a program comprised of originals save for Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks” and Michel Legrand’s “The Windmills of Your Mind.” Her fluent parlance is vibrant post-bop and her wailing, sailing and soaring horn has plenty to say over the course of the program’s nine variable but consistently swinging pieces.
Pianist Art Hirahara fronts a rhythm section well suited to Manning’s specifications. Bassist Linda Oh and drummer Kyle Struve are likewise in tune and all three players join the leader in leaving little room for lulls or rests. The aforementioned Rowles tune starts the set in fine fashion with Manning wringing the melody dry of its lyrical moisture. Manning’s “Marble” mixes dissonance and thematic integrity in a manner that harkens back to McLean’s classic Blue Note sides. “Habersham Street” trucks in delicate ballad freight with Struve switching to brushes and Hirahara comping gilded patterns in time with Oh’s careful fills. Manning accords her colleagues equal opportunity and they make the most of it with a tempo count that resists rigidity and predictability, but her cadenza of gorgeous unaccompanied choruses makes it clear who holds the tiller.
The rest of the set sustains a similarly high quality caliber. “I Tell Time By the Dandelion Clock” weaves a plangent vibrato lead with a dusky processional that flirts with free-time. The shifting signatures at the tune’s core necessitate a bit of balancing act, but one in which the players never mire. Struve and Hirahara are particularly adept in this regard, their muscular synchronicity giving Oh a serious run for the figurative money, a favor she returns with the sprinting bass lines that undergird the harmonic obstacle course that is “Crossing, Waiting”. At less than half the span, “Through the Keyhole” is no less ambitious thanks to a turn toward spirited collective improvisation. The idyllic cover shot of Manning reclining in a bed of fallen leaves may imply a sedentary session, but a subjective correlation doesn’t come close to passing muster once the music hits.