It is tempting to call guitarist Steve Cardenas understated or tasteful or consummately collaborative. These are accurate descriptions of this contemporary creative guitarist, but they each sell him short as well. Cardenas came to notice as a member of drummer Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band, so perhaps a certain subtlety was a clear part of his persona, via the gorgeously subtle Motian, from the start. And he has been a guitarist of choice for some modern singers who straddle jazz and other things (Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, and Candace Springs), so there is something of the consummate accompanist in Cardenas’s DNA as well.
But I prefer to hear Cardenas as an elegant prankster with a sly grin rather than as a man who is muted in any way. Just dig his tune “Blue Language” from the new Blue Has a Range. The composition itself is a raggy and catchy blues that might have been penned by Fats Waller in the 1930s or by Thelonious Monk a decade or two later. The guitar tone isn’t just the clean ring of classic jazz playing, but something dirtied up by the influence of rock and blues—closer to John Scofield’s clotted sound than Wes Montgomery. And Cardenas’s introduction to the song is a quirky set of funky runs, and then beautiful solo playing that sounds like a combination of stride piano, blues swagger, and impressionistic playfulness. The band creeps in—first Jon Cowherd’s piano, then Ben Allison’s acoustic bass, and then quite minimally some New Orleans-y drumming from Brian Blade. The solos by all are full of personality and punch.
It’s a brilliant band. Allison is a longtime collaborator and friend, in whose groups Cardenas has been a major voice. Cowherd brought Cardenas into his Mercy Project, and Cowherd helped Blade to create Blade’s Fellowship band—so the players are all “in the family”, known and in touch. And on this blues they play with that kind of intimacy, leaving each other room, jaunty and playful and each supporting the other—but particularly allowing the leader to spin out his ideas in a clear and playful voice. Cardenas bobs and weaves and bends notes with what I imagine to be a joyful smirk on his face. Old-timey and modern at once, he plays like he wants to make you smile and feel things in the gut too.
If Cardenas avoids any easy cliche by playing some knotty, playful blues, he can go the other way too. On “Fern’s Guitar”, he plays acoustic on a shimmering composition that pulls on your heart from a silky thread. The band is delicate too, matching him at every gauzy turn, moving at a breathed tempo, Allison’s bass acts like a velvety cushion. No one plays a real “jazz” solo, instead believing in the simple melody and the way that its repetition, with accompanying embellishments, can be enough to satisfy our need for a creative approach. A similar kind of impressionistic magic works on “Siquijor”—fitting given the reputation of this part of the Philippines. Cardenas’s electric guitar trades and shares the theme with piano, but it is Allison’s lead-off bass solo that most captivates: a slow-to-grow and beautiful creature that uses the full range of the instrument as the band provides sensitive support.
A third quirky voice is clear on “Signpost Up Ahead”, a stabbing theme that was likely improvised on the spot by the quartet with the exception of the three chiming chords that upon and close the performance. After this gestural direction, Cardenas and Cowherd trade leaping and rocking figures as Allison locates a tonal center around which the band can coalesce. Once Allison is set up, Blade’s drums—particularly his insistent and infectious hi-hat—make the ride impossible not to enjoy. The leader’s guitar barks and bites from start to finish.
The other half of the performances could be said to be more “mainstream”, sure, but there remains a natural way in which the band—clearly in no mood to create a standard jazz recording—lets the creativity push them to flowing heights. “Highline” is a sunny modern jazz theme that begins somewhat bottled up and then opens into the medium walking swing of the effortless kind. As Cardenas and then Cowherd solos, the remaining trio pops with drive, making the track sound as if, at any moment, a player like Freddie Hubbard could drop in from the afterlife and toss off a killer “Blue Note”-style solo. Blade also takes a witty turn here. “Reflector”, which begins with stuttering Morse Code-ish pattern that blossoms out into a modified Latin groove, also swings like mad.
The two true jazz ballads are standouts. “Language of Love” is a gentle theme in triple meter, and “Blue Has a Range” is a swaying tune that sprinkles a bit of major tonality into its minor wash. Cowherd is exceptional here as throughout. He is soulful and fluid but never overpowering, finding a way to mesh with Cardenas’s style as if they were brothers. The slow chord sequence of this title track finds Cowherd working chiming gospel variations on top as the guitar sticks to a stately single-note melody. As the guitar takes center stage, Cowherd continues in that vein but with more empathy—and the two build a castle out of the tune, sculpting it upward gently.
Cowherd is an interesting partner for Cardenas across Blue Has a Range. His most high profile “jazz” gig has been his partnership with Blade in the Fellowship Band. While he was educated in jazz in New Orleans and at the Manhattan School of Music, his career has been equally centered around support for artists like Lizz Wright and Cassandra Wilson, who use jazz as part of a hybrid approach, or Roseanne Cash, Daniel Lanois, Joni Mitchell, and Victoria Williams. They are creative musicians with use for jazz-trained band members. With Cardenas, of course, he often sounds like a straight-ahead jazz pianist, comping and soloing on chord changes over a swinging rhythm section. Still, more often, his identity is that of a keyboard orchestrator who is helping to sculpt sumptuous environments for melodies, both composed and improvised. Cowherd sounds every bit like this album’s co-leader in how he helps to direct the atmosphere of these performances.
More subtly, perhaps, the same can be said for Allison and Blade. As good as each is as a player, they may be more impressive as composers and atmosphere makers. Listening to a tune like “Lost and Found”, it is striking to hear how Allison and Blade create a fluid slipstream of rhythm and harmony. There is very little, from any of the players, that smacks of showing off. Cardenas’s solo on “Lost and Found” is an architectural beauty, a free-associating set of melodic ideas that plays in conversation with the whole band, with Allison busy composing his own amazing stuff on the bottom. But whether it is the leader’s lead, Cowherd’s chords, Blade’s continual cymbal invention, or anything else, you rarely, if ever sense that the band is trying to outdo each other. Rather, they are four voices on the receiving end of each other’s listening. They let the music come to them with gracious ease.
“Understated, tasteful, and consummately collaborative” are accurate about Steve Cardenas, but they sell Blue Has a Range short. It’s a record to listen to repeatedly because it is rich in the dynamic that elevates American music to the heights: spontaneous rhythmic and melodic conversation steeped in a great blues tradition and expressed with elegance.