Six tunes into this album and the easy mix of Afrobeat, jazzfunk Lonnie Liston Smith style, Brazilian flavours and dancefloor beats has you shuffling along happily (but not too excitedly) when a piano solo stops you in your tracks and you find yourself in a very special place indeed. Well, that’s how guest pianist Chucho Valdes’ contribution to the estimable Groove Collective’s new album affected me anyway—and the track has become jazz cut of the year so far in this house.
“Stargazer” is the highlight of a proficient and highly musical album, the latest from a modern institution, New York’s Groove Collective, which is marred for me only by the inclusion of some jarring power chord rock guitar on two cuts. Perhaps the experienced and highly regarded Collective thought matters were getting a little too tasteful. If so,they are forgiven—but don’t do it again.
Fans of this band (which grew out of the Giant Steps nights in New York in the early ‘90s) will know what to expect on the jazzy, Brazilian, funky side of things, but they may mourn the loss of the clubbier beats of earlier offerings. If so they should wait for the remixes and for now enjoy the consummate ease of playing and the melodic strengths on show throughout. From the gentle opening of “Time Pilot” which segues into the Fela tribute “Ransome” (with great, meaty sax) through the superior disco sound of “Dance With You” and beyond, this is a journey well worth taking. The quality of both solo and ensemble playing saves the album from the twin dangers of contemporary acid-jazz—blandness and pale reflections of former glories. Richard Worth (flute) and Barney Mcall (keyboards) and the above mentioned Rodriguez are in fine form and occasionally truly shine. The ballady “Skye” shows them off to good effect—until the rock guitar muscles them aside.
This is an album with an ear to the dancefloor rather than a dancefloor or clubjazz album. It grooves along pleasantly but it is the reworking of global styles and the showcasing of the instruments that stays in the mind rather than the power of the beats. The few vocal outings are functional and little more, but the Latin (“Daisy” and “Compasa Tunina”) and the African-influenced cuts really do work. There is a tightness and mutual understanding among each member that justifies the term collective. What’s more, this album has given each player enough room to show off his considerable individual talents. They have not, I hope, permanently abandoned the more beat-driven dance sound, but even if they have, the result is one which should please the more jazz-attuned without alienating their club following.
Oh yes, that track, that guest. If you don’t know Chucho Valdes (legendary to the few that do) then think McCoy Tyner in his Afro-Cuban mode—and then smile. If you don’t know Groove Collective but fancy some funky and well-articulated jazz flavours then start here. If you like rock guitar too, you will be in heaven.