Seems that for every jazz guitarist there are a hundred horn players. Reasons for such rarity are vague and varied. Maybe it’s the inherent distance between the body and the guitar, as if fingers plucking strings are less real than breath through brass. Maybe electricity deadens the spirit, keeps the soul in latex so no real fluids get mixed. Heck, maybe it’s just the sheer force of the personality behind the horn, the luck of the draw that Coltrane chose lips over fingertips. This isn’t to say that jazz doesn’t have its guitar heroes. From Django, Jim Hall to Sonny Sharrock, there’s been a guitar in every Jazz faction. Mark O’Leary makes his case in that tradition on this recording.
On Levitation (recorded as early as the end of 2000), the trio is Tomasz Stanko on trumpet, Billy Hart on drums and the aforementioned O’Leary on electric guitar. What first strikes these ears is the depth and level of communication between the three. There’s a sense of pregnant quiet, an often languid dialogue among friends. O’Leary seems to favor a more pure tone on most of these cuts. There’s a clarity and concentration that reminds a bit of Bill Frisell’s every note counts philosophy. Yet, where Frisell favors limpid ease, O’Leary is propulsive and urgent, even in the slower tunes. There’s a feeling he has so much to say, the pressure from all that in his head just rushes through his fingers. In this respect, he has a hint of Joe Morris about him. Unlike Morris, he moves toward melody and away from pure abstraction.
Stanko consistently swings. There’s an earthiness, tempered with sly intelligence and wit, in his playing. It brings a smile and taps the foot. Hart moves from foreground to back, adding color or texture or pushing the O’Leary and Stanko into new heights. The tunes are half written by O’Leary alone and the other half as a group. O’Leary pens starting points and guiding structure, some sticking in the head well after the disc has played through. Overall, these are musical moments filled with quiet, rhythmic tension, sonic scenes that swing on a serpentine groove.
Here for your listening pleasure and critical appraisal is a fine disc chocked full of O’Leary. From focused quietude to energetic overflow, the man moves the guitar forward. To these ears, there’s spirit and swing despite the electricity. The man can sing with his fingers. Whatever the force of his personality, he has much to say and I look forward to hearing more.