Greg Ward is one of those jazz artists who can introduce something new, and improved, to the listener without trying too hard. Despite the overachievement of which his resume reeks (composing a ballet for Peoria, a chamber work for the International Contemporary Ensemble, and a concerto for the Brazos Valley Symphony Orchestra), this 29-year-old sax pro never breaks a sweat over the course of his confident yet cool, Greg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut. With seven songs stretching over the course of an hour, it feels like the album isn’t long enough to rightly capture the outflowing of ideas that Ward is blessed with.
Unless you’re Rashaan Roland Kirk, no jazz musician is an island. Ward’s trio may or may not have been carefully picked, but their involvement in the overall sound does not accurately merit the term “rhythm section”. Damion Reid is far more than your run-of-the-mill timekeeper and Joe Sanders’ approach to the bass give an entirely different feel to some of the tracks, one that stands far outside the boundaries of traditional jazz. It’s not clear who gets credit for which specifics. With Greg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut on your side, who cares?
Right away with “Above Ground,” you get the impression that this is no ordinary trio at work. The leaping intervals that Ward puts to work may be safe enough, but Reid’s incredibly complex backbeat puts it in a whole new perspective. Not content to idly roll off a series of walking lines, Sanders nudges “Leanin’ In” into existence by way of a soft riff over which Ward can saunter. This tranquility doesn’t last, though, as Reid takes the elasticity of his already bewildering polyrhythms to a whole new level by slowing down at the strangest rate I’ve heard. All the while, Joe Sanders is soloing! How does one solo over that? The album’s namesake gets further from any kind of jazz/world nexus with Damion Reid’s half-disco, half-rock beat pushing the simple saxophone lines to a place where even something like a simple vamp is cursed with all of the catchiness of a pop melody. The downbeat is paddled around like a cheap plastic toy, making it almost impossible for dancing but delightful for listening.
Greg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut is not all verve and nerve though. The song “Velvet Lounge Shut-In” sounds as desperate as its title. I’m taking a wild guess here, but this may have something to do with the Chicago live jazz establishment of the same name suddenly closing its doors, shortly after the passing of windy city saxophone legend Fred Anderson. Ward’s solos don’t have a destination on this track. They scurry forth in an attempt to reconcile something but return with less closure than before. “This Ain’t in Book 3” and “V.S. 4” both have deceptively easygoing beginnings. The former starts as a duet between Ward and Sanders’ bowing expertise, gradually introducing Reid with some gentle pitter-patter just before the whole thing gets lifted up and up and up a la Coltrane’s Ascension. The latter leads you on with a bluesy introduction, eventually dumped in favor of some obscure pocket of music where cool jazz cohabitates with acoustically produced jungle beats. Again, form is not such much dismissed as it is treated like chewing gum.
The finest moment comes last with “Sectionate City”, a lovely cross-section of bowed intervals from the bass, fusion drum beats giving a sideways glance to Britpop, and an easy-does-it saxophone motif that plays with echoes and delays. It’s a strange but delightfully tasteful ending to an album that already had its fun messing with the formula. I could go out on a limb and say that Greg Ward has made one of the best jazz albums of the year and is a young talent to watch, but his website has the whole album streaming, so you can make up your own mind. Just don’t cling to tradition when you do.