Cameron Mizell is the great pastoral jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell. Like Frisell, he has a laser sense for a catchy hook, a spacious approach to melody, a fondness for the unconventional and a flair for the lurid that occasionally bares its fangs from deep in the shadows. Mizell’s latest album Negative Space – streaming at Destiny Records – is a trio effort with multi-keyboardist Brad Whiteley and drummer Kenneth Salters. Mizell is playing the small room at the Rockwood on March 13 at 7 PM.
The album’s opening miniature sets the stage, a brief, resonant Frisell-style tone poem of sorts, just a couple of tersely exploratory guitar tracks and a little cymbal work from Salters. Big Tree takes those hints of unbridled gorgeousness and, to paraphrase Richard Thompson, really brushes those treetops, a series of soul-infused echo phrases. The slowly swaying Yesterday’s Troubles, Mizell’s distorted riffage paired with Whiteley’s echoey Rhodes piano, sounds like Beninghove’s Hangmen covering a set piece from Quincy Jones’ In the Heat of the Night soundtrack.
Likewise, Whiskey for Flowers hints that Mizell’s going to plunge into Marc Ribot noir, but instead hits a warmly vamping pastorale shuffle that builds to an unexpectedly sweet Jerry Garcia-ish peak (it’s inspired by couple-bonding: Mizell’s wife has come to share his appreciation for the hard stuff). By contrast, Take the Humble is a crescendoing funk shuffle that owes more to Booker T than to, say, Scofield, especially when it comes to Whiteley’s organ solo.
Mizell builds a slow burn over Whiteley’s ominously circular Philip Glassine piano phrases on the album’s cinematic centerpiece, Clearing Skies, rising to David Gilmour epic grandeur, Whiteley channeling blues through the prism of REM balladry. Don’t laugh: it works. Likewise, Get It While You Can, a punchier take on the Grateful Dead version of the old folk song Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.
Barter reaches from spare and then expansive Booker T-ish verses toward Pink Floyd grandeur. A Song About a Tree would be a standout track on any Frisell album, a luscious song without words assembled from catchy electrified bluegrass hooks, drifting matter-of-factly further into space. Unfolding has such an odd rhythm – at heart, it’s a reggae anthem – that it almost seems like the drum was a last-minute overdub. The album’s title cut has an ECM feel, Whiteley’s waves of piano building and then receding way too soon: it could have gone on for twice as long and nobody would complain. The final track is part Dark Side of the Moon majesty, part cinematic Ribot menace. Beyond the tunesmithing here, the absence of bass makes this a great practice record.
Multi-keyboardist Brad Whiteley got his start as a classical organist while still in his teens. Since his precocious years in that demimonde in upstate New York, he’s branched out about as far as a musician can go. He still keeps a foot in the door with a regular position as a church organist, all the while immersing himself in jazz and doing some rock sideman gigs as well. His debut album Pathless Land is out and streaming at Destiny Records’ Bandcamp page.
It opens with a jaunty, anthemic organ shuffle, Winsome Excursion, a swinging, terse, soul-infused number that’s one of ten originals. This one, as well as the nimbly bouncy, lushly crescendoing, Jimmy Smith-influenced stroll Bass Instincts, and the album’s lone cover, a joyously uninhibited roller-rink take of Come Rain or Come Shine, feature the trio of Whiteley alongside guitarist Andrew Lim and drummer Kenneth Salters.
The first of the piano numbers, Erika’s Song (a warmly cantabile, resonant yet rhythmic ballad, dedicated to Whiteley’s wife and bandmate Erika Lloyd) also features Salters in the drum chair along with bassist Daniel Foose. Whiteley puts his knack for emotionally vivid third-stream piano on display with Suite: Contemplation, anchoring Lloyd’s crystalline, deep-sky vocalese with brooding block chords and steady, eerily Satie-esque figures over Salters’ misterioso mallet and cymbal work. Likewise, Suite: Resolve mingles darkly latin-tinged phrases and uneasy chromatics over a restless drive punctuated by an elegantly insistent Foose solo and a relentless, shamanic, otherworldly spirit duel between the piano and the drums.
The purposeful yet enigmatic, modally-tinged No Regrets throws a nod in the direction of Thelonious Monk over a spring-loaded rhythm that the band eventually takes triumphantly swinging up to a lively Foose bass solo, then back into moody terrain as Salters rumbles around the perimeter. Whiteley returns to the organ for Nostalgiastic, a slinky, clave-driven homage to the soul sounds of the sixties, with a judiciously sunny Lim guitar solo at the center.
The album’s title track, a swinging song without words, sets Whiteley’s precise upper-midrange melodies and lefthand/righthand exchanges over a brisk, skintight rhythm, Foose again contributing a dancing, kinetic bass solo. The album concludes with the organ tune Brooklyn Hustle, building suspense until the band finally breaks free with a lickety-split swing and purposefully bluesy solos by Lim and Whiteley, each player choosing his spots. The eclecticism of these compositions testifies to Whiteley’s long view of music from Bach to the B3. Yet in the end, Whiteley’s translucent, melodic sound is uniquely his own. He’s got plenty of gigs coming up: a couple that look especially choice are on April 21 at 9 in a duo with Michael Eaton at Something Jazz Club, then the next night, April 22 at 9 he’s at Tomi Jazz with excellent, hard-hitting Texas saxophonist Stan Killian.
Nick Moran’s second organ trio album, No Time Like Now is “not a Chicken Shack band” record, the jazz/funk guitarist asserts. It’s not that he doesn’t love classic B3 grooves, it’s just that he wants to be freed from the constraints of that idiom, which he makes absolutely clear right from the album’s opening track, a funky reinvention of Cream’s Strange Brew. Drummer Chris Benham pushes it along with a steady, somewhat restrained pulse as organist Brad Whiteley cascades and swirls with a similar terseness before they bring it way down for a relaxed, starry halfspeed guitar interlude. Moran’s bluesy bends, unclutted, clear tone and precise staccato reach back for a Memphis soul feel as much as they do to George Benson. As the album goes on, the group expands their palette to include soul, rock and a whole lot of funk.
The rest of the compositions are Moran originals. My Beautiful is a carefree bossa nova ballad given extra heft by Whiteley’s washes of sustain, and then an alternately smoky and spiraling solo before Moran takes an effortlessly cheery one of his own. The next cut, Intention is a slow, warmly catchy soul groove that wouldn’t be out of place in the early Grover Washington, Jr. songbook (a good soprano saxophonist would have a field day with this melody). Then they pick up the pace with the deep-fried southern funk of Slow Drive, Moran channeling vintage Larry Carlton circa 1976 with his agile pull-offs and coppery vibrato, segueing into the trickily rhythmic Wishful Thinking with its artful dynamic contrasts, subtly plaintive, crescendoing chords and then an off-center, Walter Becker-ish guitar solo.
Not everything here is as easygoing. The title track, a casually hopeful, warmly pulsing, nostalgic ballad, underscores the irony of Moran’s final conversation with a friend who died suddenly afterward. Say Hi to Paris is an aptly wry, funky, vintage Crusaders-style homage to the late New York blues singer and bandleader Frankie Paris, an irrepressible character who played pretty much every dive bar in Manhattan that had music 20 years ago. The Physicist Transformed, a biting, minor-key elegy for a friend who was a scientist by day, bluesman by night, builds from a Balkan-tinged circular riff, through suspensefully crescendoing nocturnal cinematics to a drum solo that stops just thisclose to crushing. And Natalya, inspired by Natalya Estemirova, the Chechen human rights activist murdered in 2009, maintains a stunned, brooding ambience, Moran stately and wistful against Whiteley’s eerie, funereal chords. The album closes with on an upbeat note with Renewal, a steady, purposeful clave tune lit up by Whiteley’s insistent volleys and Moran’s casually propulsive, loping single-note lines. The Nick Moran Trio plays the album release show for this one this coming Friday, March 9 with three sets starting at 7:30 PM at the Bar Next Door.