A long and winding road led Charlie Mariano to this inspired record of romantic ballads. For the last 50 years he has traveled through swing, big band, bop, fusion, and more adventurous material; he lived and worked in the US, Japan, Europe, India, and Malaysia; and, not surprisingly, he has amassed a list of collaborators a mile long. No need to provide that list here. Mariano is his own man by now.
All that exploration leads him to Deep In A Dream. It's a far cry from his fusion work and recent ambient efforts: strictly straight-ahead jazz here. It must be said that jazz quartetstypically, as in this lineup, consisting of horn, piano, bass, and drumshave made ballad recordings since the beginning of time. And most of these records have been entirely forgettable, as most listeners know. But the ones that stand out serve as a lesson that one of the hardest things to do as an improvising musician is to harness all the academic knowledge and technical expertise required to play jazz, and turn it toward softness and delicacy.
From the first notes of Deep In A Dream, it's apparent that Mariano has chosen this road. The opening track, "You Better Go Now," leaps right into a alto melody that fairly drips with honey, swinging easily with a light tone that nonetheless retains an edgesomething Mariano uses to shape his phrasing and draw emphasis to points of contrast and climax. This is a recurring theme. Rather than aiming for pure liquid smoothness, the saxophonist makes full use of his horn's broader range within these quiet dynamics. And the point, always, is a lyrical melody.
The remainder of the tunes consist of standards plus two originals. Of the standards, "I Only Miss Her When I Think Of Her" stands out most strongly. The Van Heusen/Cahn tune was suggested by pianist Bob Degen, who delivers a deft introduction with surges and pauses, moving back and forth between an abstract feel and light swing. By the time the piece gets up to speed, the group has acquired a fresh, percolating synergy. The interaction among members of the rhythm section is subtle but sophisticated. Drummer Jarrod Cagwin plays a key role in energizing the swinging Latin feel which becomes more and more apparent as the piece moves on.
Degen's original "Etosha" is incredibly soft and open. Lesser musicians would fall flat in such a spare context, but this quartet manages to stick together and maintain momentum. Just barely. It's a good sign that the weakest moment on the record retains a strong sense of clarity. That, of course, bodes well for the rest. As a whole, Deep In A Dream is a beautifully lyrical record with just enough quiet energy to fuel a constant sense of discovery and exploration.
Visit Justin Time on the web.
Personnel: Charlie Mariano: alto saxophone; Bob Degen: piano; Isla Eckinger: bass; Jarrod Cagwin: drums.