Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Mike Pardew review by Delusions of Adequacy

Mike Pardew - Azul
June 2, 2009 by Adam Costa
Category: Albums (and EPs)

As is also the case these days with classical music, jazz is trying to find relevancy in a culture that has largely dismissed it as an antiquated genre. Often sadly stereotyped as the music of your parents’ (or more frequently, your grandparents’) generation, “America’s music” continues to be the focus for a niche group of enthusiasts who have the formal background to appreciate the genius of Charlie Parker’s hard bop and theoretical jargon like tritone substitutions, polyrhythms, and minor 7th flat 5 chords. Thankfully, none of the above is a prerequisite for enjoying the jazz fusion of Mike Pardew.

A Portland, Oregon guitarist who admits to being just as influenced by John Scofield as he is Jimi Hendrix, Pardew can hopscotch between latin, jazz, and rock styles with a versatility that is as bold as it is inspired. Yet, this is a far cry from the Weather Report albums your dad was listening to back in the late 70’s; the jaw dropping technical skill remains (as does the family name of Erskine), but WR’s cerebral song structures, complex improvisations, and sophisticated instrumentation are all but gone. In their place, we have a core trio (Pardew handles six string duties with Micah Kassell and Damian Erskine providing support on drums and bass, respectively) that takes very seriously the business of finding a comfortable balance between rocking out and geeking out. Such is the overarching theme of Azul, Pardew’s latest album of genre-mashing virtuosity.

The album’s opening cuts are, for the most part, understated in their intent. “Shades” is an easygoing introduction; Pardew alternates between thinly layered chord structures and clarion solo passages that are sublime in their execution. Pardew’s jazz textures are juxtaposed most notably by drummer Micah Kassell, whose shifting time signatures and gargantuan tone recall a style more likely to pop up on the next Tool record. Though Pardew is meant to be the focal point of the song, Damian Erskine’s bass playing nearly steals the show. With tone as smooth as Jaco Pastorius’ and yet as punchy as Victor Wooten’s, Erskine’s prowess on the low end (a 6 string bass, no less) is just as worthy of note as anything Pardew can pull off.

Next up is the album’s title track, a mysterious and ethereal affair in which Erskine’s fluid chord arpeggiations provide a solid backdrop for Pardew to lay down some dense harmonies and silky solo riffs. Despite a noisy and dissonant introduction, “Welcome Home” turns into something worthy of its namesake, with Pardew and Erskine creating an inviting yet tangled web of contrapuntal melodies.

As the album progresses, Pardew’s rock tendencies are let out of the bag. “Road Worn” features a melody in 7/4 (Pink Floyd, anyone?) that is played simultaneously by the guitar and bass as the drums receive a pummeling from Kassell. “Velonis,” an instantly infectious song in 12/8 time, should appeal to rock and jazz fans alike with its distorted shredding and vaguely Middle Eastern melodies. “Stairwell” pits a groove in 7/8 against a drumbeat that unsuspectingly drops into 4/4 time. The aggressive and overlapping rhythms that result from this are a perfect fit for Pardew’s handiwork on the fretboard, which pays homage to the styles of both David Gilmour and Carlos Santana.

Only on tracks when instruments get swapped around the table do the proceedings begin to evoke a sense of trite self-indulgence: “U.S. Route 93” and “Flathead Lake” are instances of metal wankery that thankfully pass by in under a minute a piece. But with only these small missteps to speak of, Azul will hopefully be regarded as a trailblazing example of what is possible for the fusion of jazz and rock in the 21st century.

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