Amibtious, Tuneful, Anthemic Americana Jazz from Joshua Kwassman
Newington, Connnecticut seems to be a nice enough place to grow up, one of those sleepy, comfortable New England hamlets off the interstate on the way to Boston. But it could just as easily be a setting for a Stephen King novel. Saxophonist Joshua Kwassman hails from there: the Maria Schneider-esque, pastoral sweep of his latest album Songs of the Brother Spirit has both the flinty rusticity and East Coast sophistication that define his home state at its best, as well as a moody, shadowy intensity. Here he’s joined by Gilad Hekselman and Jeff Miles on guitars, Arielle Feinman on vocals, Adam Kromelow and Angelo Di Loreto on piano, Craig Akin on bass and Rodrigo Recabarren on drums.
Kwassman distinguishes himself as a first-rate tunesmith with an ear for the imaginative and unexpected: he’ll go to an anthemic change in a second to drive a point home if he sees fit. His writing is by no means constrained by traditional jazz tropes, with a refreshing expressiveness and purpose. The opening track, Our Land has a Chris Jentsch-like clarity, Feinman’s airy vocalese blending with Hekselman’s lyrical lines for a springlike atmosphere, building toward clave with a simmering Kromelow solo and a roaring crescendo. We Were Kids, Kwassman’s hushed childhood reflection is lush yet detailed, with bounding alto sax, Kromelow taking it down gently to a balmy horn chart.
In Light There Is Song is terse and lyrical, with an optimistic, vintage Pat Metheny vibe, guitar and vocals again driving a long trajectory upward and then back down to an unexpected ghostliness. Meditation, a pensive reflection on the inevitable losses that come with the passage of time, contrats Kwassman’s moody clarinet against Feinman’s brightness. The album’s centerpiece is a triptych, The Nowhere Trail, a darkly cinematic narrative of a summer camping trip gone disastrously awry. A distantly sinister Di Loreto pedalpoint theme recurs with variations as Miles adds an offcenter unease against the dancing anticipation underneath. They rise to a fever pitch and suddenly the mood shifts, Hekselman drifting toward an apprehensive flamenco feel, Kwassman’s menacing melodica vamp signaling that suddenly everyrthing is not well. From there a dream sequence of sorts ensues, lit up by Feinman’s meticulously nuanced, opaque vocals and surreal glockenspiel: it ends by returning to a pastoral ambience with hints of the Beatles. Highly recommended for fans of Americana-flavored jazz, from Bill Frisell to Bryan & the Aardvarks.
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