There is always a problem when extremely talented jazz musicians try to make a groove-oriented, read smooth jazz and radio-friendly, recording. Because they have a ton of chops/ability/technique/harmonic imagination, they invariably end up recording solos that are in line with their abilities and therefore well beyond the aural capabilities of their target adult contemporary audience. A number of great straight-ahead artists have tried, and subsequently failed, to make commercially viable recordings. The list includes perhaps the best alto saxophone player working today, Kenny Garrett, along with perennially underrated keyboardist Rachel Z. Add to this list one of the two CDs recently released by Shapes in their new two-disc set, The Big Picture.
Shapes is a collective of phenomenal Los Angeles and New York area musicians led by pianist and mallet percussionist Roger Burn - who some will remember as being a member of the house band on The Martin Short Show. The revolving cast of musicians includes keyboardist Russell Ferrante and bassist Jimmy Haslip (both of The Yellowjackets), Andy Suzuki on woodwinds, Dave Dirge on drums, Pauline Wilson on vocals (best known for her work with Seawind), and chops-master guitarist Robben Ford, among others. The lead voice throughout much of the recording is, however, the virtuoso multi-harmonica player Tollak Ollestad. Make no mistake, he is a true virtuoso. There’s nothing he can’t do, create or execute. His tone, many times coming close to that of a saxophone, is full, emotional and thoroughly expressive.
This new two-disc recording, co-produced by Burn and Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip, features one disc of groove-oriented and ostensibly radio-aimed tunes - entitled Reel One, along with a second disc of interestingly arranged and expertly performed straight-ahead jazz - Reel Two. Problems on the first disc are seen immediately on the first cut, Arc Of Twilight. After the very catchy and punchy melody, full of great hooks and strong synth/vibraphone/wordless voice accompaniment, Ferrante and Ollestad take solos that are too complex for radio. They both move into alternate parallel harmonic areas that are truly hip, and because of this forays into radioland may be difficult. That isn’t to say the music is bad, in fact it’s really hot, but only if you listen to it with a jazzer’s ear. Fans of what passes for smooth jazz today will lose interest once the solos start.
Call this first disc "thinking-man’s smooth jazz." While the musicians certainly prove jazz can still make you move, as well as demonstrating easy listening jazz can have depth, they are also unable to curtail their chops and knowledge of harmonic associations. Depending on where you're coming from aurally this is either good or bad.
Witness the group’s cover of Coltrane’s Naima, here done with a double-time beat to keep the what-was-originally-a-ballad moving. Tollack’s solo through upper chordal structures is incredible, but much too complex for mainstream radio play. The solos continue in this pattern throughout the disc. Andy Suzuki is hot on every track. His flute work on The Big Picture is inspired, as well as his saxophone work throughout. While you’re not likely to hear cuts from this album on smooth jazz radio, that doesn’t mean they aren’t hot, just way too intelligent for widespread success.
The second disc, on the other hand, plays to the ensemble’s strengths: straight-ahead jazz with no excuses for harmonically complex solos that roar. For example, the mid-tempo feel of Love For Sale is the perfect platform for New York valve trombonist Mike Fahn’s seductive and brilliant double-time solo lines, Pauline Wilson’s caressful vocal swoops and sighs on I Didn’t Know What Time It Was proves she spends way too much time in Hawaii and Andy Suzuki’s tight lines on Softly As In A Morning Sunrise show him to be yet another artist of the highest caliber deserving of a wider audience. As for leader Burn, In The Outdoors gives him a chance to prove he’s not just a great arranger/producer - his vibraphone work slashes and burns in the way you wish every jazzer could play.
All in all this is great music from great musicians and well worth the investment.