Dana Hall doesn't often hog the spotlight on his debut album, Into the Light. He doesn't need to; he plays more stuff behind other musicians than some drummers do in a solo. Hall stays busy back there, exhorting and swinging the band, playing contrary rhythms, shifting his patterns and punctuating everybody else's solos.
Here, Herbie Hancock's "I Have a Dream" is played more or less in the style of the Miles Davis quintet with Tony Williams exploding the drums. But Dana Hall's quintet is talent-heavy, too. Most of the players have worked together for years in his and trumpeter Terell Stafford's bands. Shared experience means you don't just get great soloists — you get ones used to feeding off each other's ideas. In "Conversion Song," Stafford plays punchy trumpet recalling fellow Philadelphian Lee Morgan. Pianist Bruce Barth spins his solo off the end of the trumpeter's, improvising on a theme handed off to him.
These state-of-the-art swingers are working through possibilities jazz musicians raised decades ago. But they don't sound stale; even classic jazz has contemporary influences. In Hall's tune, "Into the Light," electronics dapple the sound of Stafford's trumpet. But the more modern touch is the drummer's ferocious, post-hip-hop funk beat.
Drummers who lay on the thunder like Dana Hall sometimes get accused of having big egos, but his busy-ness is less about going it alone than connecting — of binding all the musicians' parts together in a complex matrix of rhythm and melody. Playing tunes by bandmates Tim Warfield and bassist Rodney Whitaker alongside his own helps keep the troops happy. If there's a selfish aspect to this music, it's that the players do sound like they're having a really good time.