Jazz guitarist Adam Rogers makes a record drenched in rock and funk but not without complexity and melodic invention. Strong brew.
Adam Rogers is a premier jazz guitarist in New York City, where he was born. While Rogers’s work as a leader has been the snapping, complex modern jazz you might associate with saxophonist Chris Potter (who has recorded with Rogers, in fact), Rogers has also played with Paul Simon, Walter Becker, Norah Jones, Lizz Wright, and Alana Davis. His range as a guitarist is wide -- he studied with John Scofield -- and it includes classical playing.
DICE is the name of Rogers’s band and new his recording, and it is a nod to the rock and funk that is part of his sound but hasn’t been heard on most of his previous dates as a leader. Nate Smith is a top drummer (his Kinfolk: Postcards from Everywhere is a 2017 must-listen, and he is recorded here with utter clarity and placed right at the front of the mix. Bassist Fima Ephron is another ubiquitous player with the widest range you can imagine. Together, they are crunching it like a super-group on this record, but one that is playing with NO DAMN FRILLS. Together and playing this music for years, only now have they set it down.
Dig into “Chronics” to see what this date is all about. Rogers’s intro could be a classic rock riff, a hook unto itself, but played with minimal distortion. The recording, however, sounds live in the studio: wide open, with the sting of the amp clear in the sound. Smith’s drums get the same treatment as they come in, playing a tricky bit of funk rock. The melody is a neat blues lick punctuated by a couple of hip jazz chords as relief. The chordal bridge is simple but effective. The guitar solo is funk-rock fireworks but controlled burning all the way.
Although there are elements here of “fusion” or “jazz rock”, the sonorities of DICE lean toward rock. “Sea Miner” presents a fascinating blend. There are two themes in sharp contrast. The opening idea is a slice of guitar funk that James Brown would have loved -- raw, no overdubbing, It is repeated twice with no solo and then dissolves into silence, bringing the second theme at a different tempo, also funky as can be, but this one eases into an atmospheric set of overdubbed guitars, flutes, and bass clarinet that waft through the tune like a fog, briefly suspending Smith’s groove, until the original theme returns to blow the fog away. No improvising, but an intriguing concept.
This kind of complex compositional structure is all over DICE. “Flava” starts with a super-crunching distorted sound an a clipped, metal-ish theme that develops a tricky stutter in Rogers’s hands, a syncopated chordal line that turns the groove around. A third of the way in, however, the groove is interrupted by a wave of synthesized whooshing that ushers in a new splashing groove, with multiple guitars rocking hard until one spins out a solo of great imagination. Ephron is brilliant underneath the improvising, providing a hopping bass line that ripples and provokes.
A couple of tracks here lean towards country rather than rock or funk. Most obviously, the trio covers “Crazy”, the Willie Nelson classic, keeping things simple and spare. Rogers uses his volume pedal and bends his strings such that he can sound like pedal steel, all while spinning an improvisation rich in melodic invention. “The Mystic” is a quieter folk theme set over a country shuffle played on brushes. Smith puts a hint of New Orleans in the groove, however, and Rogers takes a solo built on a Telecaster twang.
Not that the kind of jazz Rogers usually plays is an entire stranger to the music on DICE. “L the Bruce” sets up a groove that sometimes suggests 4/4 rock but more often seems to be hiding a complex time signature amidst a set of overlapping patterns. “Seven” is little more than such an exercise -- a whiplash groove from Smith and a guitar riff that cycles and pops in a syncopation that, by its conclusion, conjures full-blown Steve Reich-ian minimalism.
This is thrilling, high energy music. It is muscular, with a punch. The recording is lean and superb -- every sound is honest and rich. And the compositional ideas are fascinating: a series of Rubik’s Cubes with rock punch.
If DICE were a meal, though, almost every course would be spicy, meaty, hard to digest. Delicious but offering little relief or contrast. I suppose it isn’t a meal but more of an amusement park full of coasters. If you’re in the mood, this recording will get your heart racing.
Here’s another way to think of it in this era of asking your phone (or Alexa or Siri) to “shuffle” your music. When you are shuffling all your music -- or even all your Adam Rogers music -- the sudden appearance of a tune from DICE is going to be a joy, a jolt, a blast of power. That may be enough for me, rather than wanting to revisit the whole album all the way through. But either way, this music is pungent, alive stuff. That goodness that our jazz heroes are willing to rock and funk out. It is all one music, and we need all of it.