Guitarist Miles Okazaki returned in 2019 to the quartet model that made Trickster from 2017 such a dazzling success. That recording was a mature deployment of methods from the New Jazz of the last decade, with Okazaki using the complex funk he trained in with composer/saxophonist Steve Coleman (and using Coleman’s rhythm section of bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman) but also slices of hip-hop, fusion, post-bop jazz brilliance, and the complexities of classical new music where it might suit him. His keyboard partner on Trickster was Craig Taborn, whose comfort and ease in this kind of environment is clear.
The latest version of the band swaps in keyboardist Matt Mitchell, with whom Okazaki plays on Mitchell’s most recent recording Phalanx Ambassadors. Mitchell is equally fluent in every modern vocabulary—so The Sky Below promises a similar set of challenges and successes.
The story is that Okazaki took the themes from Trickster, broke them down to their essentials, and then wrote new compositions that would retain a similar character. He imagined these new themes as the steps of a narrative about the trickster character on an ocean voyage: Odysseus meets Bugs Bunny meets Henry Threadgill? Think about it how you choose—the music is a riveting journey.
On the surface, the biggest difference between Trickster and The Sky Below is Mitchell’s use of a Fender Rhodes electric piano and his Prophet-6 synth to create a wider range of textures and voices on the date. On “The Castaway”, a hypnotic rotating structure of a tune, there are layers of sound that seem to use non-acoustic keyboards in washes that move in and out with each swaying chord change. Mitchell’s acoustic piano is there too, but either a processed Rhodes or a guitar with pedal effects (or, very likely, both) are building the sound of the tune into a small orchestra beneath Okazaki’s riveting lead line. The web includes not just patches of chords but also ringing percussion sounds that could be coming from Mitchell or Rickman, who is recorded brilliantly here in everywhere-at-once stereo. Mitchell’s obvious “solo” is for piano, but he is creating spontaneous lines in the background and the cracks on other instruments. The feeling ultimately becomes one of many voices circling Okazaki’s main voice, like colors that come and go across a large spectrum rather than four primary colors in clear areas of counterpoint.
On “Seven Sisters”, this orchestral effect is also strong. While Okazaki begins the composition with both acoustic guitar chords (as if he had listened to much Ralph Towner over the years) and a rising (and subsequently falling) four-note pattern on that acoustic, the tune eventually hosts a grand array of voices using different sonorities. Okazaki plays the main theme on an effect-driven electric guitar, and Mitchell answers with a line from his Prophet, which two lines then converge. Mitchell’s left-hand is playing a bass line on acoustic piano along with Tidd, just as Rickman introduces a tricky contrasting rhythm from the drum kit—another orchestral layer that has a specific timbre and independence.
Immediately following this track, Okazaki programs “Monstropolous”, an uptempo exercise that sounds almost like old-school fusion, with Mitchell’s synth and Okazaki’s guitar dueling in a frantic collective improvisation that finds Mitchel knob-twisting to get a range of analog rasps and overtones. The asymmetrical groove from the rhythm section distinguishes this from a Mahavishnu Orchestra musical chase-race. Still, the liberating feeling of it is the same: exhilaration and some genuine thrill in the skill of it all. The use of short “cells” of melody is used effectively on the super-funky “Dog Star” as well, with Tidd sounding more James Jamerson than usual, playing an essential motif that ties the whole performance together even as guitar and piano play a combination of fast unison runs, wild counterpoint, and collective groove that tends to land on the whole band emphasizing the two staccato hits at the end of the bass lick.
On other tracks, the agenda for the Trickster band is closer to the original recording, with a cleaner sense of a “jazz” quartet interacting. The playing is still lightning-fast and fusion-powered by virtuosity on “Rise and Shine”. Okazaki’s clean-toned reading of a jagged theme sounds like a man bounding up a staircase, with Mitchell’s acoustic piano or Rhodes keeping pace around him, beside him, or with him. While the track closes with the two soloists both playing (the synth appears here first, as this is the opening track) in an ensemble almost like Miles and Coltrane racing against each other on “Ah-Leu-Cha”, there is something reassuringly focused about this track: the musicians are playing with sharp purpose.
“The Lighthouse” is a bit more traditional still, the band loping in what feels at first like a New Jazz version of waltz time, and then guitar and acoustic piano playing an attractive theme together. This setting allows both Okazaki and Mitchell to show off their prodigious gifts for playing beautiful and ornate improvised melodies. Mitchell’s solo is a thrilling two-handed improvisation that leaves plenty of space for Tidd’s exploratory bass lines and Rickman’s accents to comment on the fascinating action. This track provides all the traditional pleasures of a classic jazz performance, while still prodding the music forward with a complex approach to time. Mitchell adds a whir of flutey synthesizer at the very end before the track ends with Okazaki playing the same ripping guitar lick that opens “Rise and Shine”.
A couple of the performances are set in various odd versions of ballad time. “Anthemoessa” has a strong, melancholy melodic arc, played first by a quiet guitar or synth while Okazaki improvises on acoustic guitar. The tune is then stated by an overdriven guitar (as well as another tracked guitar or Mitchell’s synth?). The tune is repeated over a slow-moving groove that shifts from a two-feel to a counter rhythm. Acoustic and electric textures are layered beneath in a stew of sound. Tidd’s bass line is doubled by synth, and Okazaki doubles himself at the end in electric counterpoint.
Less effective is the closing track, “To Dream Again”, which uses detuned chords and detuned lines from Mitchell’s synth over a finger-picked acoustic guitar and long tones from Tidd, both of which also shift in and out of true pitch. It is sneakily unsettling, ending The Sky Below on a tricky question of how well your ears, so trained to Western diatonic playing, really feel about a scale that includes the weird notes between, for example, C and C-sharp. One listener in my apartment asked me, is this music supposed to make you seasick?
Well, Okazaki says it is a program about a sea voyage, and this music is clearly intended to stretch the ears in various ways. The band can toggle between small-band fusion fleetness and orchestral layers of woven voices. There isn’t a single track that really gives you a pure backbeat. Yet, the language of funk (or its shotgun cousin in hip-hop rhythms) is close enough at hand—all bubbling and brewing through this confident rhythm section, which just as often seems to be working on a version of African drumming but using electric bass and a trap kit.
All the while, what sets Okazaki’s take on the New Jazz apart from some other music on the scene is his willingness to tie it all back to the adventurous guitar music of the past 50 years. I hear traces of James Ulmer (his razor tone and attack) and of Bill Frisell (his acoustic/distorted electric washes) in addition to the more obvious elements of fusion and post-bop jazz. All the while, Okazaki proves to be a generous leader, providing Matt Mitchell with a huge canvas for his artistry as well, with antecedents that might be said to stretch from Bernie Worell (P Funk/Talking Heads) to Joe Zawinul (Weather Report) to the more obvious jazz piano tradition.
This band, then, seems unique in wonderful ways. The Sky Below offers both candy-crisp pleasures and some playing that bends ears away from what is easy. Miles Okazaki handles his instrument and his composition, with utter confidence. He is in the vanguard of creative guitarists.