Steve Cardenas is a guitarist with restraint, vision, and melodic insistence. He is a member of that generation of jazz players for whom playing inside the conventional harmonic vocabulary co-exists with a full range of free playing, and his long tenure playing in drummer Paul Motian’s bands showed that he’s no neo-traditionalist. At the same time, his playing shows every sign of being connected to tradition — a full range of modern tradition, though.
Melody in a Dream is his latest record, something that stacks up well and with maturity against any contemporary jazz guitar record you might choose. Caredenas has a fluid and balanced trio on hand, with Thomas Morgan on bass and Joey Baron handling the percussion, and three tracks bring trumpeter Shane Endsley on board. The core of the playing is in the guitar trio format, with the leader playing a mostly clean sound that opens up plenty of space for exploration. Nothing is too tightly hemmed in on this session. Baron is airy and clean, his cymbals shimmering and in beautiful time. Morgan plays only the right notes, never extra.
The focus is on ballad playing or mid-tempo exercises that reward space and patience in the band. Two Paul Motian tunes are particularly great to hear, with Baron never aping the late composer’s drum style but with plenty of lessons learned from Motian too. “In the Year of the Dragon” is an easygoing swinger that gives Morgan plenty of room to interpret time freely. He walks, four quarters to each measure, eventually, under Cardenas’s solo, but he actually takes the first improvisation and so he feels almost like he’s always soloing here, shifting in and out of straight time as the mood requires. As a result, the whole performance feels like a genuine conversation. Motian’s “Once Around the Park” also begins with Morgan featured and carrying the melody for a true, beautiful ballad. The standards “Street of Dreams” and “Peace” (the Horace Silver classic played as a bossa nova) could hardly be interpreted more gently and thoughtfully.
But what about the leader? He plays with remarkable imagination everywhere but, yes, you have have to pay attention. On that Motian ballad, he weaves a solo that ingeniously remakes the melody, which he states at the end of tune with gracious descent. His own tune, “Just One More Thing”, opens the recording and is a deft rumination: a melody that bounces around and finds interesting paths. It seems to invent itself on the spot, with none of the melodic inevitability that we associate with the American songbook. It unfolds like a person breathing, naturally. And it is Cardenas’s sharp, purposeful playing that keeps it from seeming like a mere stroll in the park.
But Cardenas can also play with some fire and edge. “Ode to Joey” is a theme that speeds up, slows down, swings like it was “Killer Joe”, then moves through longer sections of mostly free time. Here, Cardenas’s tone picks up a little extra body, a touch of chorus like he’s Pat Metheny, but a touch of distortion too, a dirtying of his normally easy tone. On the peppy “Broken Time”, Cardenas pops and strums with a nice touch of buzz to his sound, keeping the feeling open but also in the pocket. He is most modern sounding on Thelonious Monk’s “Teo”, where he sounds a bit like John Scofield, his tone breaking up when he punches a louder chordal cluster, particularly. Cardenas is at his most rock-line here, digging into some distortion so that he can stand up to the Baron, as the song is taken as just a duet for the longtime friends.
My favorite thing here, however, is the effortlessly tuneful song, “New Moon”, another Cardenas original. This may be the trio’s most traditional performance, but that’s okay. Cardenas takes the first solo and spins nothing but golden melodic webs and flickering little rhythms that get your heart hopping. Morgan is lovely as well, all while Baron pings his ride cymbal in a shower of time.
Melody in a Dream is a supple and exemplary demonstration that jazz can sound very much in it’s tradition even while it is varied and subtly daring. The leader’s work in other bands — with Ben Allison, with singers such as Kate McGarry and Rebecca Martin — shows that he moves easily outside of jazz traditions when he wants to. This record blends that impulse with the kind of playing a guitar band might have attempted 50 years ago. It is a blend intoxicating at least.