Dave Juarez’s new album Round Red Light – just out on Posi-Tone – is sort of the last thing you would expect from a jazz guitarist. There are compositions here that he doesn’t even play on, which speaks volumes. He’s a strong, individualistic, potently melodic writer who gets the max out of all the voices he has available here, with strikingly interesting arrangements where everything counts. He doesn’t like to waste notes, especially impressive for a guitarist: while there are other six-string guys in jazz who also play tersely and memorably, there’s also a whole generation of post-Stern, post-Scofield guys who refuse to play fewer than a thousand notes where one or two would do just fine. This guy is as far from that style of playing as Coltrane is from Kenny G. The excellent band behind him embraces that esthetic with joy and passion: Seamus Blake on tenor, John Escreet on piano, Lauren Falls on bass and Bastian Weinhold on drums.
The album opens and closes with jazz waltzes. The buoyant first track, Montepellier View swings its way through to a judicious Juarez solo where he climbs in stages with a graceful intensity. The concluding track, RNP, works off a biting modal theme that serves as a launching pad for a stunningly precise, tricky staccato solo from Escreet, some tastefully balanced pyrotechnics by Juarez and finally a fullscale, menacing intensity, the whole band burning beneath Blake’s ecstatic crescendos. Juarez is also very adept at boleros. La Noche Oscura del Alma begins slowly with more unease than dread and builds to a disarmingly funny series of false endings, lit up by a gimlet-eyed solo by Escreet. The Echo of Your Smile, a vivid ensemble piece, brings out the best in everybody. Falls, whose striking, incisive lines make many of this album’s most memorable moments, elevates it at the end with more than a hint of funk, Escreet adding a tinge of menace with his cascades. The best of these is the broodingly intense Luna de Barcelona, Juarez nonchalantly firing off a snarling chord or two as he winds his way up, Escreet bringing a funky edge this time, but with plenty of bite, introducing a plaintive, blue-flame, full-ensemble take of the final verse.
Just from the title, you know that Seratonina is trouble. She’s fast, and not a little satirical, bass and drums practically walking themselves off the edge of the song as Juarez wanders obliviously, Escreet taking it from caffeinated to starlit and then back again. Belleza Anonima takes its time coming together and after another clever false ending emerges as a song without words, Blake leading the way. Lonely Brooklyn doesn’t feel that lonely – with an understated Afro-Cuban vibe, it pairs Escreet’s cascades against Falls’ good-natured pulse. And the title track, a ballad, gives Blake a chance to get expansive before Escreet and Juarez pair off gingerly afterward. Not a single weak track here: a stealth contender for one of 2011’s best jazz albums.