The Phoenix, the debut American release from guitarist William Ash’s Trio, is a CD I opened with great anticipation. It has all the elements of a great recording. First, it comes from Smalls Records, the label founded by the owners of the famous N.Y.C. club. The Smalls club (which recently graduated to a larger place and changed their name to "Fat Cat") has become something of a jazz landmark in New York and I have heard some great recordings come out of the Smalls label. Not only is William Ash a Smalls Records artist, he’s also played weekly at Smalls for the past six years or so, honing his chops with such greats as Jimmy Cobb and Bobby Durham.
On this recording Ash is accompanied by none other than Dwayne Burno on bass and Mark Taylor on drums. Burno has worked frequently with Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Cedar Walton, Roy Haynes, Benny Golson and many others. Taylor has worked with Johnny Griffin, George Coleman, James Moody, Art Farmer, Clifford Jordan and the list goes on. To top it all off, Ash acknowledges that Wes Montgomery (one of my favorite jazz guitarists of all time) is his main influence, and as a result he has been selected several times to appear in tributes to Montgomery. As you would expect, the level of musicianship is superb. Unfortunately, the quality of the recording itself, produced by Luke Kaven, leaves a little to be desired.
The main problem with the recording is that, sonically speaking, it sounds rather flat - rather one-dimensional. I found it somewhat tinny on the top end of the sound spectrum and a bit muddy on the bottom end. With a larger ensemble it might not have been quite so noticeable, but with a trio of this type there’s a lot of space around the music, and any inadequacies in the recording quality tend to really stand out. I also felt that the optimum mix between the instruments was never achieved, as often times the bass (and sometimes even the guitar) is a little too low in the mix for my taste. These are subtle issues, but ones that created a distraction that ultimately reduced my enjoyment of the listening experience.
Ash has definitely derived his ‘strumming octaves’ style from listening to Wes Montgomery, and as a Montgomery fan I really dug that aspect of his playing. There were a few passages during which he didn’t seem completely relaxed in his playing, and it resulted in a feeling that he was not completely ‘locked in’ with the bass and drums. Montgomery often played just a little bit ahead of the beat, which had a way of bringing extra energy to the tune. Ash’s playing incorporates some of that rhythmic displacement, but during those times when he was slightly out of sync with the rhythm section it made him sound just a tiny bit hesitant and unsure.
Having said all that, if you can listen past the slight imperfections, you will hear a guitarist playing some interesting (and often quite advanced) ideas. His solos seem very explorative at times, as though he hasn’t quite committed to which path he wants to take. He can be moving in one direction and then suddenly stop on a dime and do something entirely different, but he has a way of wrapping it all up in the end so that it all makes sense. He is also quite the writer, having contributed eight of the albums eleven tunes. His songs are of the bebop and hard bop variety with memorable melodies and fairly common bop changes (maybe a little too common, as I have to take exception to his decision to take composer credit for the tune "All In All", a very thinly veiled "All The Things You Are".)
As for the rest of the band, I can’t say enough great things about Burno and Taylor’s contributions. They are simply rock solid, consummate jazz musicians of the highest caliber. What they bring to the table on this recording is incalculable.
Though this album fell a bit short of my expectations, all in all it’s an excellent effort. And to be fair, I should also mention that it was actually recorded in December of 2001 and I’m sure Ash’s playing has matured quite a bit in the ensuing 3 years. I can’t wait to hear what his next recording sounds like.