Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Phil Sargent – A New Day

Brooding, thoughtful and emotionally resonant, guitarist Phil Sargent’s new album transcends the jazz label – although he’s backed up by a first-rate cast of jazz players. The instrumentals here are innovatively arranged for an interesting configuration of piano, bass, drums and also a vocalist in place of a horn player. Singer Aubrey Johnson does a terrific job, her vocalese shifting timbres slightly just as Sargent does, utilizing a pitch pedal in places in the same way that Sargent manipulates his tone with his guitar effects. Aside from a Pat Metheny-esque motorway instrumental, which is straight-up rock, and the remarkably nuanced heavy metal menace of the sixth track (a bit of a breather for the band, who’ve stayed within themselves marvelously up to this point), the whole album is a clinic in how to maintain a mood. With some help from guest keyboardist Brian Friedland on organ and piano on the third track, bassist Greg Loughman and drummer Mike Connors carry a lot of emotional weight here with understated grace.

Johnson sets the tone that will dominate throughout right off the bat on the distantly pensive title track, Sargent taking his time to get going and finally taking flight uneasily with a hint of raw distortion as the bass and drums, and guest pianist John Funkhouser – a marvelously rhythmic choice – rattles around behind him, piano solo moving captivatingly from judicious chords to a full-on swing attack. The second track is all contrasts, Johnson’s understated wistfulness against the melody’s buoyant sway. Bass and guitar follow her in turn, downcast: even when Sargent is finally firing off a flurry of eight notes, he’s still looking over his shoulder. You don’t realize how beautiful this song is until it’s almost over. Johnson sings the dark tango-inflected first verse of the following cut over Sargent’s volume-knob swells. It builds – Sargent feels around for his footing and eventually lands with a terse series of chords before leaving the ground with more of them, then Loughman solos as Sargent plays with his volume knob again.

The well-titled Gridlock opens with bass carrying the melody over Sargent’s fingerpicking, growing from unease to fullscale menace and then backing off (the first person to identify what 70s art-rock phrase Sargent is quoting from at around 1:50 – Robin Trower? Jethro Tull? – wins a prize). They wind up the album with a characteristically subtle, bossa-tinged ballad. This won’t be on some people’s lists of the best jazz albums of 2010 but it’s definitely on ours.

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June 18, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Genre-Smashing New Guitar Albums from Chris Burton Jacome and Lawson Rollins

Chris Burton Jacome and Lawson Rollins are both gifted acoustic guitarists with individual voices, each with an innovative, flamenco-inspired approach and a new album out. Jacome imaginatively blends both rock and Middle Eastern melodies within a traditional gypsy flamenco framework, while Rollins brings a biting flamenco edge to his groove-oriented world jazz instrumentals. If flamenco or gypsy guitar is your thing, both of these guys should be on your radar, particularly since each has his best days ahead of him.

Jacome is a feel-good story: as a teenager, he wanted to be Eddie Van Halen, but was happily disabused of that fantasy when he discovered flamenco. He immersed himself in it the old-fashioned way, learning from the source from Roma in Spain. His new album Levanto is a fullscale ballet, a theme and variations complete with dancing – as a purist, he’s continuing a centuries-old tradition that blends music with dance, legend and storytelling. Dynamics are his strong suit: he’s the rare guitarist you actually want to hear more of (lots more of, actually – as with Rollins, he’s sometimes conspicuously absent on his own album). Backed by the vivid, incisive violin of Jennifer Mayer, Adrian Goldenthal on bass, Kristofer Hill on percussion and a trio of brassy vocalists (Chayito Champion, Olivia Rojas and Vanessa Lopez), the group alternate between fiery dance instrumentals, dramatic ballads, poignantly fingerpicked passages and a lot of tap-dancing. Jacome makes artful use of the Arabic hijaz scale as well as interpolating catchy rock passages within the compositions’ stately architecture. The problem is that as an album, the segues are jarring – just when a song seems about to sail joyously over the edge, here come those dancers again. It’s easily solved once you upload the tracks and sequence them yourself (it should be emphasized that fans of oldschool flamenco will have no problem with this; however, a lot of momentum gets lost if you just leave the tracks in their original order). What this really should have been is a DVD – it leaves the impression that there’s a whole side to the spectacle that doesn’t translate if the audio is all you have.

Rollins comes at flamenco as a jazz player with blazing speed and a wealth of original ideas: by the time the fifth track begins, he’s delved into rhumba, samba, Cuban son and back again. Like Jacome, he has an inspired cast of characters behind him including Charlie Bisharat on violin, Dave Bryant on percussion, the great Iranian composer Kayhan Kalhor guesting on kamancheh on one track and Airto Moreira, Flora Purim and their daughter Diana Booker contributing backing vocals. Rollins tosses off one lightning phrase after another, sometimes handing them off to Bisharat, other times to the wryly muted trumpet of Jeff Elliott. He imaginatively works the traditional descending scale of flamenco music in all kinds of new ways, even adding some tersely textural electric guitar beauty to the title track. The highlight of the cd is the triptych at the end, the Migration Suite, upping the ante with biting, Middle Eastern flavored arrangements and motifs. The problem here is the production: when there are horns here, they’re so compressed that they sound like a synthesizer, an effect that compromises all the playing here, even Rollins’. Where the Brazilian vocalists might have been able to contribute something memorable, they’re as buried in the mix as the Jordanaires on an old Elvis record. Even Kalhor gets flattened out. There may be a reason behind this: one of the cuts here was a “most added” track on easy-listening radio earlier in the year. Which on one level is fine, Rollins deserves to be heard – but in a context that does justice to the fire and imagination of his playing, his compositions and the peers he plays with. More than anything, this reminds of the work of another quality guitarist, Peter White, whose series of world music-inspired acoustic instrumental albums about 20 years ago typecast him as an easy-listening, smooth jazz guy rather than the world class player he is.

Lucky Arizonans can see Chris Burton Jacome play the cd release show for this one at the Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N Arizona Ave. in Chandler on May 2.

April 27, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment