When Robin Baytas, Kevin Sun, Isaac Wilson, and Simón Willson first formed Great on Paper in New England Conservatory (NEC), no one knew about it. Meeting in practice rooms, the four covered jazz standards and practiced their improvisation, not realizing themselves what the end result would be. In 2013, the group began work with composer Ted Reichman, and in 2014, the quartet became NEC’s honors jazz ensemble. Continuing to pile on their successes, they embarked on an East Coast tour earlier last year and recorded new music in New York City. Finally, after years of practice, recording and gigs, the group is now ready to give the world their debut album.
Coming from NEC, it’s no wonder that Great on Paper have some serious jazz chops, and they showcase it whenever possible. Take “O Sacrum Convivium” and “Negative Bird” for example; the first is jazz take on a classical song and the other is post-bop that’s loosely inspired by Charlie “Bird” Parker’s “Blues for Alice”. On “O Sacrum Convivium”, the band weaves together the luxurious melody of the original song with the lumbering tone of the saxophone. Sometimes the piano will take over momentarily and then lightly fade into the background alongside the cymbal percussion and rolling bass, but the melody remains steady and unchanged. In contrast, though, “Negative Bird” is blue-tinged jazz at its finest, with light saxophone playing by Sun and thumping bass by Willson. However, the real highlight is Isaac Wilson, with a dancing, jumpy piano solo that’s unassuming on the surface but magnificent at its core.
Although every song on this album is good to some extent, “Winnings” and “I Hear a Rhapsody” are by far the most passionate and nuanced of them all. The former begins with a serpentine melody that opens up to yet another excellent bass run by Willson, as well as steady drums by Baytas. It never reaches some sort of climax, but winds and curls in a whirlwind of harmonic saxophone soloing before slinking away into the shadows once more. “I Hear a Rhapsody” begins as unassuming as well, with standard jazz opening the track up. This gives way, however, to a chaotic frenzy of solos from each band member. The fact that none outclass the others is a testament to the high-level of skill that each jazz player brings to the table, and makes this ten-minute epic the most memorable and enthralling song on the album.
Where Great on Paper suffers, though, is its one-dimensionality. Even on a colorful, vibrant song like “Negative Bird”, the end result is still almost as soft as slower tracks like “Slimy Toboggan” and “O Sacrum Convivium”. The only moments where the quartet become truly energetic are on the opening and closing songs, “Winnings” and “I Hear a Rhapsody”, which, as mentioned before, feature some great saxophone solos as well as a amazing bass solo by Simón Willson on the last track. Had there been more songs like these Great on Paper would have made for a more entertaining and dynamic listen. As it stands, the album falls into a relaxed groove by the second song that it has trouble escaping, even during the solos and improvisational sections.
Jazz is a genre that requires more than study and practice; it demands the player to communicate human feelings and thoughts through dissonant harmonies and disorganized soundscapes. While the members of Great on Paper are certainly technical masters of the genre, their slightly stiff performance and inability to translate their passions into their music prevents the group from reaching their full potential as a jazz quartet. Seeing as Great on Paper is their debut release, though, these minor deficiencies are to be expected. As they progress and become more confident in their playing, Great on Paper will become a gripping quartet to listen to in the coming years. Nevertheless, even with a few self-conscious moments here and there, the New England band has enough showmanship and talent to make their self-titled album an enjoyable, relaxing listen for many a jazz fan.