In the 20th century, the jazz seed germinated, grew and blossomed in the rich culturally diverse American musical soil. As with every flower, its main purpose is to reproduce and to pass on its traits, evolving with time and the environment, ensuring its survival and growth for the generations that follow. We are fortunate that a jazz seed landed and germinated in the fertile Sandbox and Sanctum of Gene Ess.
Ess, a native of Okinawa, Japan, considered a child prodigy by fellow musicians and instructors, started performing in clubs and festivals around Okinawa at the age of 14. After winning an "Outstanding Performance" award from Downbeat magazine in 1983, Ess received a scholarship from Berklee College of Music; there he studied with the highly recognized Charlie Banacos and Jerry Bergonzi. After graduating with honors in 1989, Ess moved to New York where his first 'gig' was at the Condon with the Rashied Ali Quintet. Over the past sixteen years, Ess has established himself in the New York jazz scene as a top sideman and leader.
With his latest release Sandbox and Sanctum, Ess contributes a series of eight original compositions tied together by a song cycle for quartet. The group is comprised of Harvie S on bass, drummer Gene Jackson, and Grammy-nominated Donny McCaslin on saxophones. We begin the cycle by playing in the sandbox "Free 2 Fast." The opening sounds are that of silence, followed by a sustained chord that slowly swells in volume until a gong crash at the twenty-seven seconds mark. The effect seems to bring the listener in to the inner sanctum of modern jazz, where the sand is rich with the heritage of the past and the potential material for the future. The aforementioned descriptions are an indication of the things to come, in both this song and in the entire cycle of songs. Ess and his co-horts are going to let the journey of the music germinate, grow, bear fruit, and continue the cycle until the story is told.
"Ryo," a relaxed bossa flavored track, intelligently builds upon itself with each motif growing out of the last. The composition, as with all the eight songs, contains multiple melodic sections that seamlessly flow together, exhibiting that Ess is equally as talented with the pen as the pick. The cycle continues with "Baptisma Pyros," with Jackson fueling the fire with a continuous drum dance around the other members.
A beautiful "Ballad for a Swordsman" bears the fruit of introspection and sensitivity. Ess, on the nylon-strung guitar, delivers another fine solo with heart-felt lyricism. There are some very nice moments of space and contrapuntal interaction between Harvie S and Ess.
Want some non-guitarist angular chromatic lines that grow with deep roots in the underlying harmony? "Ask the Guru," will provide the answer. This and the first track really exemplify the ability of all the players, both as individuals and as a group, to work together to form a cohesive sound that is enjoyable and intelligent for the listener.
If the monocot plant (with parts grouped in three) of the crop is "Noh Country," than "Sun Matsuri" is the dicot of the crop (with parts grouped in five and four). Both are well executed by the group, with the later following the recent trend to explore the world of time signatures outside the common three and four. Ess chooses a distorted tone for his solo on "Sun Matsuri," perhaps giving a nod in the Allan Holdsworth direction.
The cycle, brought to a close with the joyful funky march of "Kerama Processional," leaves with a reprise of the opening. However, this time the fading sounds leave the listener with an experience of an enjoyable musical journey.
Throughout Sandbox and Sanctum, Ess displays a unique approach to the guitar. Ess's use of thoughtful voicings and eloquently chromatic lines definitely grow out of the rich soil of the likes of John Coltrane and the post be-bop era. Ess is a highly recommended guitarist to keep an eye and ear on for the future of jazz guitar.