Ausin-based The Chris Vestre Group delivers its second album with a regretfully apt title. Suburban Life. Suburban Life has 15 solid tunes and some exciting moments, but won’t make any desert island lists. On Suburban Life, The Chris Vestre Group takes the best parts of 70s fusion, trims away the self-indulgent excess and gives listeners a recording that sounds authentic to its roots yet modern in interpretation and delivery. It’s nothing innovating, but doesn’t pretend to be either. The songs are simple, stick to a few chord changes and follow now-familiar jazz forms.
Songs with moods on opposite ends of the spectrum are tracked together more than once. The bright blues of "Sun & Shade" following the bleak fuzz of "Muffler Burn," "Easter" with its shadows and haunting leads parked in front of the funky hammond intro to "The Greasy Wrench," the tense "Frenody" settled between the poppy "You Be You" and "I'm Ready," a piece that characterizes the moment when reluctance gives way to actualization. Songs share similarities, like the statement played on sax and trombone in "Brunette Ambition" and the guitar/sax lead that opens "You Be You," but nothing sounds like simple rehash filler to up the album’s running time.
Some of the most exciting moments on Suburban Life are controlled chaos. Take the guitar and keys duet in "Muffler Burn" that displays a near-psychic connection between guitarist Chris Vestre and keyboardist Evan Jacobs, matching timbre and finishing phrases. The bulk of "Easter," the wall-of-sound conclusions to "Pop Star," "You Be You," "Brunette Ambition" and "The Greasy Wrench" and the bleak, atmospheric "Marfa" with ample space for accompaniment to color the lead voice.
Suburban Life sometimes falls flat when relying on one musician to carry the weight of two solos in the same song. That’s not to say the soloists aren’t accomplished musicians. They definitely throw a few curves, but well before the album's over, listeners are familiar with Vestre’s turnarounds, Jacobs’ keyboard flourishes and Chenu’s saxophone arpeggios. You'll get your fill of saxophone arpeggios and if that’s your thing, buy this album now and don’t think twice.
The songs are written in styles familiar to the musicians. They always sound comfortable, never out of place, but the songs aren't always tailored to an individual to let their solo sizzle and sear. "Pop Star" is and Vestre can barely contain himself at the end of Aaron Lack's excellent vibes solo. Vestre wants at it and after his choppy riffs turn into complete phrases, he unleashes an engaging solo that makes for one of the albums highlights. Like most of the album's upbeat tracks, it's carried by Chris Maresh's aggressive bass accents and some incredibly fluid drumming from Jon Greene.
"The Greasy Wrench" sounds like Suburban Life’s take on Lee Morgan’s "The Sidewinder." On an album that owes more to everything that came after In A Silent Way than anything that came before it, "The Greasy Wrench" is a welcome change of pace deep in the album. None of the songs are quite as frenetic as "Duck Fit" with its abrupt transitions and tempo changes from a straight-ahead 6 to a swing in 4. Clocking in at less than two-and-a-half minutes, Chenu leads a piece reminiscent of hard bop Monk and Sun Ra.
Vestre wrote every song on the album with the exception "Treehouse Tune," where Vestre shares song writing credits with Victor Hernandez. It’s one of Suburban Life’s high points, though a bit of a nod to early Pat Metheny. "Treehouse Tune" is a laid back piece and Vestre has the space to lay down a floating solo. Vestre doesn't really conclude his part, which instead melds into a Jacobs piano solo that builds in jagged phrases before it hits a soaring fluidity. The mellow "Brunette Ambition" gives Jacobs another chance to shine with a Fender Rhodes solo that steals the song.
If anything, Suburban Life earns itself a cult of sympathy. Maybe Chenu’s relying on familiar licks so that a slip won’t force another take. These guys must sound great live. Listen to the musicians supporting the soloist, that's great musicianship. Think about how the album would sound with a big studio budget, but listeners can accept flubs when the musicians are pushing their boundaries. This album is a reminder that great jazz strays from the comfort zone.