This trio is one of a crop of new groups to pop up in Vancouver, BC in the last year that has seen a surge in fresh youthful vibes - bring it on! Diversions also happens to be my favorite of the 'young pups of jazz', as they have been dubbed (these guys spawned of the well-reputed jazz program at Capilano College); and in the half-dozen or so times I've heard the hypnotic trance-inducing weaves and grooves of this trio, I am wowed by their consistently excellent live performances. The sax-keyboards-drums set-up sounds simple enough, but the players, their rapport, the material and the use they make of the instruments definitely are not. They just make it look easy.
Group leader Jon Bentley's tenor tone always takes me by surprise, it's hard to shake the feeling that such a deep, soulful, sensual tone couldn't possibly come from one so young; I'd bet there are plenty of players twice his age who would kill for what this guy's got in his mid-20s. Also worth noting is the 10 or so effects pedals - usually reserved for guitars - that Bentley employs to guide from his horn smooth waves, choppy 'talking-in-front-of-a-fan' whirrs, and echoey, almost guitar-like wah-wahs and fuzzes. He is also blessed (as are we) with the wonderful ability to use all that gadgetry with taste. He's got specific sounds doctored up for specific songs; an especially intriguing one is provided by two of the pedals hooked together to produce a beautifully haunting 'harmonizing-with-himself' effect that boggles the mind as it tries to match what the ears hear with what the eyes see. An awesome display to say the least.
Match that up with a graceful pianist/keyboardist like Chris Gestrin, who plays with a delicate jaggedness (ever heard beautiful funk?) and a solid, crisp, confident drummer like Bernie Arai; add to that the fact that Bentley can write a sweet melody that sneaks gently into your heart and soul before you realized it's taken you over, and is also quite adept at the head-swinging grab-your-gut boppin' smoker; then make them great pals and you've got one helluva young group to watch.
Now, all that said, the first listen of their debut CD was something of a shocker, as the production seemed busy and the effects heavy, certainly as compared to the live performance. But then came the sense that they weren't aiming to capture the live sound (which is, however, presented on the enhanced CD-ROM portion of this disc). Subsequent listens have lead to more of an appreciation of the studio efforts, with the bottom line being, that like any good musician interpreting a jazz standard, I'm sensing "American Prophecy" is Diversions interpreting Diversions. It's all about exploration and possibilities for these guys (which, of course, makes me curious for what's next).
I give particular thanks for track two, "Rescue Annie" where Gestrin holds it all together via some playful left-handed bass lines on the Chroma Polaris; and track nine, "Five Birds", an all-encompassing number that sees Bentley and guest trumpeter Brad Turner trading off gorgeous distortion and pretty cleanness, until the whole group goes off all warped, fuzzy and loose, winding it down through the keys like a demented old Victrola gasping its last breath. At a couple of points, in "Shorter Than Me", a tribute to Wayne Shorter, and the title track, in particular, there may be one extra step taken toward 'new agey' for my taste, but it passes quickly. A great first disc from an inspired (and inspiring) new group that I will be keeping a close ear on. Look for Diversions at the du Maurier International Jazz Festival Vancouver, June 25-July 4.