This is a fair set of contemporary jazz in which the guitarist / leader has the more-than-sterling support of Brad Mehldau’s piano, the Sonny Rollins-ish tenor saxophone of Joshua Redman, Larry Grenadier on bass and either Jeff Ballard (four tracks} or Ali Jackson (on the other six) drumming.
“If I Should Lose You” is the most obvious example of musical decay through Kurt Rosenwinkel’s preferred wired-in choral effects (manipulated vocals and echo with guitar). These—and there is no better word—cheapen what could have been a very decent ballad performance. The musical level drops because of the descent into un-easy listening. This schmaltz is even more of a pity, because in what (barring harmonic trick-tracking) is a straight-through solo guitar feature, Redman makes such splendid contributions to the accompanying ensemble.
The tenor has a lovely workout on the track which follows, preceded by a solo in which Mehldau, as is his wont, develops vigorous runs with the left hand. He’s a powerfully ambidextrous improviser. “Synthetics” sounds entirely natural, other than a slight electronic vocal echo in the guitar solo: a healthy straightforward swinger.
A few years back I managed to tape a Mehldau broadcast I wasn’t able to catch. Then I forgot all about the tape till after a friend had come back from Dublin enthusing about the pianist’s performance there. When the tape then turned up, the music on it proved unimpressive. People are supposed to wonder about Mehldau, or have problems making their minds up about him—as if they’d never encountered a musician who could sometimes have off-nights, and other times play out of his skin. He could probably achieve a steadier consistency if he had more stock routines in his vocabulary. He’s in too high a class for that. His extended solo introduction to the next track, “Use of Light”, is followed up by excellent accompanying work to sustain the whole performance and prevent Rosenwinkel’s echoey, dreamy (attempting the ethereal) solo from causing sag. The bassist and the respective drummers are beyond reproach and very active contributors throughout.
Rosenwinkel likes echo, not only from his own voicebox and added machinery, but as an effect of playing in unison with the tenorist. He’s done that before, but after using the device on the winding lines of the opening track he does it too often. At times, however, he sustains the unison through chording, adding a contrapuntal line. He should do that more often, and get off the use of that orchestral extension of harmonics which needs tight control to prevent it going soft or wet. He doesn’t provide that control nearly often enough for it to work.
Without Redman, “Brooklyn Sometimes” has a nice Mehldau intro and then an entry by the guitarist almost immediately followed by the re-entry of his echo. Sorry, or Sorr-ory, but no sooner does he time the first note than his spreading echo can be said—if the music isn’t just taken lightly—to re-time and mis-time it.
The tune called “Cake” has a distinctive start, Redman in a definitely no-nonsense mood, whereas the same can’t necessarily be asserted of the guitarist. They go in for a bit more unison on this one too, with a bit of neo-Arabian counterpoint and Rosenwinkel doing his vocal-echo thing again in a New Age bop sort of style. Redman’s solo is outstanding and he doesn’t need to make a lot of ugly noises for emphasis. Ali Jackson knows how to get in there and sock and drive, as well as work symbiotically, as he does during Mehldau’s solo. The guitarist is fair enough, but the band’s damn’ fine.
Mehldau drops out for the title track, a nice melancholic tune by Messrs. Corey and Cross. Redman’s somewhere inside the—at times, alas—muzak harmonies indulged in by Rosenwinkel. For all that, however, he can play stunning solo lines. Great guitarist, terrible arranger, but very good composer of themes.
“Gesture [Lester}” is a pretty melody of the guitarist’s, the opening ensemble muddied by his guitar before Mehldau’s concise solo. Rosenwinkel shows his chops well, as does Redman more briefly, before the closing ensemble’s marred with cloying stuff—sloppiness and soppy taste.
The closer, “The Next Step”, is yet another demonstration of Rosenwinkel’s gifts as composer. Mehldau opens down the bottom end of the piano and Jackson is rolling-and-tumblingly melodramatic, till the guitar and tenor find their way into a melody. Their play with harmonics has a muddying effect, but the solos which follow are fine. This band really can stomp, which they do to the end, but alas, not without the shallow-making downright dilution on which the guitarist and arranger is hung-up. Maybe he wants his own individual sound? Self-sabotage seems a low road to a dubious destination.