The tension between spontaneity and established routine creates challenges for any musical group, but it is all the more problematical in jazz, where improvisation plays a critical role. Successful combos often lose their spark, relying on well-crafted routine and yielding to audiences that expect consistency in style and familiar material. Some achieve this with old hits, others with traditional repertoire. One reason to listen to Urban Transport is that this jazz quintet eschews such comforts, offering a constantly changing variety of original compositions and arrangements, always looking forward.

The group has been together for half a decade and is now the most consistent jazz combo on the Detroit jazz scene. Urban Transport is made up of trombonist Vincent Chandler, alto saxophonist Dean Moore, bassist Josef Deas, drummer Sean Dobbins, and a rotating roster of pianists. The roots of the group go back to Chandler’s septet, which at one point morphed into the Chandler-Dobbins Quintet and finally settled down as Urban Transport. Over the past few years they have appeared regularly in various Detroit and Ann Arbor clubs and have been featured at festivals, won awards, and put out one CD.

The music of Urban Transport can be characterized as hard-driving traditional modern jazz with an edge. The relatively rare frontline combination of trombone and alto saxophone provides a signature sound quality that contrasts with the ubiquitous quintets that feature trumpet and tenor sax. Chandler’s trombone playing has a Thoroughbred quality: he likes to play fast, with driving rhythms, sweeping the pulse ahead of him. By contrast, saxophonist Moore likes to take things a bit more slowly, and his solos often begin in a deliberate, pensive manner. He likes to take a small but dramatic idea and play with it, patiently examining it from every angle before moving on to something else. He will build intensity from small blocks, and when he finally reaches a climax, the effect can be absolutely thrilling. Both Chandler and Moore have developed an enviable mastery of their instruments: no matter how fast and hot they may play, everything is executed cleanly and precisely, with perfect intonation. They are also steeped in and respectful of tradition but do not strive to re-create it. Unlike most of their contemporaries, neither sounds like anyone else. Much the same can be said of Dobbins and Deas, who are responsible for holding everything together and keeping the drive going.

Urban Transport is at Kerrytown Concert House on Friday and Saturday, November 18 and 19; the shows will be recorded live for the band’s next release. This is undoubtedly a good idea, since these musicians thrive on interaction with their audiences and would be constrained in a recording studio. They have a good following here, but they are simply too good to remain a local secret. Let’s hope that a good recording will provide them with the passport to broader acclaim.

[Review published November 2005]