Friday, April 10, 2009

AZUL review on stereo subversion

Mike Pardew - Azul

Album Reviews • Wednesday April 1st, 2009 • 12:15 am

Jazz fusion has been a much-maligned genre throughout the past three decades or so. Although groups like Weather Report have sold impressive numbers of albums (at least for jazz acts), there are a lot of jazz heads out there that wouldn’t be caught dead listening to “Birdland.” I had a History of Jazz professor in college who balked at even a mention of Weather Report and their ilk. But on the other hand, at its inception, fusion was one of the most progressive forms of music and a logical step from the still chiefly acoustic mode of the sixties. The same people who get airsick from “Birdland” get nourishment from Bitches Brew and On The Corner. But between then and now, something happened to fusion. It’s been banished to the tinny-speaker ghetto of elevators and shopping malls. For better or worse, contemporary fusion bands have to respond to this loaded history. Can you play jazz fusion per se without becoming indistinguishable from Muzak?
Mike Pardew’s trio does an admiral job splitting the difference on his record Azul. The album takes the tropes of fusion and stretches the boundaries, however slightly, and more singular interpretation of the genre elbows its way through. The record has the collaborative, spontaneous, and individualistic feel that a good jazz record ought to. All the players shine at one point or another on the record without always resorting to becoming too embroiled in their own individual talents, a common gripe in fusion. The first three tracks give ample room for each of the players to show off their strengths. Bassist Damian Erskine takes full advantage of the range of the instrument on “Shades,” floating above Pardew’s languid chords and venturing from smooth glissando lines to tight staccato stabs. Drummer Micah Kassell keeps impeccable time on “Road Worn,” but adds in polyrhythmic fills that feel like they’re stumbling away from you but get jerked back up a moment before hitting the ground heavily. Pardew himself is a creative if not overly adventurous soloist, sticking close to tonal centers while making lithe intervallic leaps and smooth chordal transitions (check “Transgression”). His rhythmic phrasing and tendency toward bluesy classic rock (“Bigfork”) saves him from sounding like he’d be at home backing Kenny G.
But the admixture of distorted, grooving 4/4 rock and jazz dexterity begins to become predictable as we reach the halfway point of the album. The numbers are either dialed-back clean Wes Montgomery explorations (“Azul”) or rocking, proggy, King Crimson like, compound time jams (“Velonis”). But while a guitarist like Robert Fripp was never afraid to stray far from the tonal center of the song, Pardew unfortunately tends to rein himself in before he gets himself to far into the intimidating freedom of atonality. By the time we hit “Stairwell,” we know that Pardew is going to spend some time taking liberties with the bass ostinato that the song is built on, and then re-align with it like he did at the head. In a music as vital and personal as solo-based jazz, its important that the listener can’t predict exactly where the soloist is going, but when he gets there it still makes sense. Pardew tends to lead us just where we expected him to.
Those themes that Pardew takes as his source material tend to become repetitious as well, just when the album gets to the point of demanding a new direction. It’ll most likely be a compound-time groove with some simple eighth-note leaps and wrapping up the bar or two phrase with a sixteenth-note run. Then the mellower numbers start sounding more and more like tired, watery nonsense. The couple divergences are so divergent that they are anomalies, like the guitar noise and processed phone-message of “Flathead Lake.” It’s a confusing minute-and-twelve seconds, and the album would be better without it. On the final track, “Alluvium,” Pardew pits his music-school chords against field recordings and delay washes that feel like affectations. And unsurprisingly, he switches back to the proggy territory he knows best a minute and forty-five seconds in.
For it’s faults, Azul is overall a solid showcase of a skilled trio grappling with fusion in the 21st century and trying to find their own voice in it, to mixed success. The trio is clearly one that could accomplish something much more original than Azul, and something that tends toward the spacy exploratory nature of early fusion and less toward the insular wonkiness of the contemporary stuff.

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Tagged as: Jazz, jazz fusion, Portland

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