It's interesting to watch musicians approach the comfort zone. Some see it as something sacrosanct, a precious relic to be protected and preserved like antique china; others treat it like the family handball, never hesitating to pick it up and hurl it against the wall with all possible force. Danish guitarist Torben Waldorff takes a third route on American Rock Beauty, slipping inside the comfort zone and expanding it from within.
There's nothing initially threatening or offensive about any of the pieces on Beauty, and that's usually a bad thing, because it means the artist didn't even try to peek outside the box. Waldorff's compositions certainly can't be accused of this, because there's so many diverse elements involved in the final product jazz and rock, country and gospel, blues and Brazilian. The key is that Waldorff and his cohorts create such a bright, welcoming vibe that it seems perfectly right to step inside this musical worldand that's where the fun begins.
and drummer John Wikan's driving foundation riff to create the kind of traveling music that was the Pat Metheny's stock-in-trade. Jon Cowherd's bubbling Fender Rhodes make things a little giddier, and Donny McCaslin's elegant tenor sax completes an unquestionably alluring picture. Once the course is established, McCaslin takes off like a bird, making his solo bigger and brighter until he's positively wailing. Waldorff follows him with sharp, fast guitar lines that are buoyed by Cowherd's own chording. It's all built brick by brick, always moving forward but never getting ahead of the point, and the end result is so rewarding.
"Shark" sounds like a harsh bit of subject matter, but Waldorff's opening chords combine with bassist Matt Clohesy
Cowherd trades the Rhodes for the standard-issue piano on "Shining Through," establishing just enough gospel attitude to call the group to church for a happy bit of revival. It ends with McCaslin in the clear, blowing hushed figures that evoke a single man playing to an empty ballroom. The title track is one of two definitive statements on Beautyin this case, one that pairs the power of a unique personality with the sorrow inherent in that personality's self-destruction, and Waldorff's guitar communicates both aspects brilliantly. The other statement comes from the session coda "Scape," which beginning and ending in a philosophical space and towering over any and all issues in between.
McCaslin has been honing his leader résumé in the last couple of years with powerful discs like Recommended Tools (Greenleaf, 2008) and Declaration (Sunnyside, 2009). All he has to do on Beauty is play, and play he does. His solo on the waltz-like "Late" is epic, and his last-minute entry on "Song-ella" is the cherry on top of Waldorff's sun-drenched Brazilian cake. McCaslin's chemistry with Waldorff is tremendous, and Cowherd's versatile keyboard work adds immeasurably to the final product.
American Rock Beauty is what life should befun, adventurous, and above all, educational. More importantly, it shows that comfort and substance are not mutually exclusive terms.
Personnel: Torben Waldorff: guitar; Donny McCaslin: tenor sax: John Cowherd: piano,
Fender Rhodes, organ; Matt Clohesy: bass; Jon Wikan: drums.