Jazz keyboardist Javier Santiago’s Ropeadope debut Phoenix plays out like an artifact from the fusion days of Return to Forever and Weather Report. The musicianship is at an all-time high while the overall vibe is at an all-time chill. Vocals are there to occasionally bolster the horn lines, but the words being sung are of a secondary concern. Each melody is progressive without being obtuse. The texture woven by Santiago and his core band is both delicate and durable, offering up the image of a tough band that play tender music. Phoenix sounds way too fully-realized to be a debut album, but I’d be all too happy to eat those words in the near future.
The principal musicians are Santiago on electric Rhodes and various synthesizers, Dayna Stephens and Ben Flocks on saxophones, Nir Felder on guitar, Zach Brown on bass, and Corey Fonville on drums. Additional musicians include Nicholas Payton and Omar Abdulkarim on trumpet, John Raymond on flugelhorn, J. Hoard and Proper-T supplying vocals on three tracks, and Adrian Suarez adding percussion to one song. Javier Santiago certainly knows how to use his help. All throughout Phoenix‘s 46 minutes, the keyboards rarely hog center stage.
The thematic thread woven throughout Phoenix‘s eight tracks is, you guessed it, rebirth. Javier Santiago has moved across America enough times and has performed with enough musicians to enrich himself with a sense of what he calls “personal deaths”. There is one slow death that he feels we ought to take more personally, and that is the decay of the planet. “Gaia’s Warning” is meant to signal just that, a wake-up call from Mother Nature. “Autumn” and it’s reprise are both sturdy melodic standouts, despite their combined length of just four minutes and two seconds. If the track’s namesake is perceived as the death of summer leaves, the following track really plays up the rebirth angle.
The title track spans over 10 minutes and takes its time building the dynamics through instrumental interplay. When Felder steps on a distortion pedal and everyone is seemingly soloing at once, the track “Phoenix” alone becomes worthy of the admission price. John Raymond’s contribution to “Tomorrow” provides extra class to the falling action and J. Hoard’s sustained notes over opener “River Song” both serve as a nice counter-balance to the pure frenzy of “Phoenix”.
It’s really too bad that Javier Santiago didn’t have a music career in the ’70s. He would have filled theaters in every major city with a band like this. It is tempting to look at Phoenix as an anachronism, and doing so will not diminish its power. Looking at it from the other end of the lens may help usher jazz fusion back to its rightful place as a mighty musical genre for the upcoming decade. Just don’t count on it. In the meantime, Phoenix is a great consolation prize.