What is jazz? Does anyone know anymore? When Bill Frisell won Downbeat's Album of the Year award a few years back for Nashvillean album that was long on Americana and bluegrass and, at least on initial inspection, short on the things that most people tended to associate with jazzthe landscape had clearly changed.
And that's not a bad thing. What really defines jazz is the improvisational spirit; not just someone soloing over a band mind you, but a true collective improvisational spirit; and Frisell, who continues to explore Americana roots music, clearly puts that front and centre, regardless of the context. And while bassist J.A. Granelli and his group, Mr. Lucky, are on the outer edges of what many people would define as jazz, Gigantic is as good a fringe jazz record as you are apt to hear this year.
Reconvening with slide guitarist David Tronzo and Jamie Saft on organ and mellotron, Mr. Lucky explores an atmospheric blend that incorporates blues, country, gospel, boogie and reggae into a style that, for all its familiarity, contains many surprises. A newcomer to the band, drummer Diego Voglino drives the band with an encyclopaedic knowledge of groove. Whether it is the boogie-style "Happy Pt. 1" or the reggae-inflected "13.5," Voglino anchors the band with a confident, somewhat slap-happy style and a firm back-beat.
But while groove is a big part of what Granelli and Mr. Lucky are about, they are also about texture. Saft has been gaining a reputation as a keyboardist who, manages to create a unique landscape, and things are no different here. On the atmospheric "Merle," Saft creates a lush pad over which Tronzo's playing is so relaxed it almost falls over, but in Tronzo's capable hands it all manages to work.
While everyone plays well, Tronzo is really the star of the show, defining most of the melodies with a fat guitar sound that, while more processed, would make Ry Cooder proud. His dexterity with a slide is scary; he pulls off lines that would send most slide players back to their practice rooms.
A lot of what Mr. Happy is about is a very retro sound; but throughout it all is a modernity of approach to harmony and counterpoint that takes an R&B-informed tune like "Again" and gives it a completely contemporary flavour. While Mr. Lucky clearly look back with reverence, they are not about homage; they are about referencing different styles and taking them forward. As groove-happy as this group is, there is something indefinable that gives them a slightly avant edge.
Infectious, moving and passionate while, at the same time, thoughtful and intelligent, Gigantic is the second album from a group whose first CD was hailed as one of the best CDs of 2001. Gigantic continues to deliver on the promise of the first record and is destined to become a favourite of 2004.
Personnel: J.A. Granelli: bass, piccolo bass; David Tronzo: slide guitar; Jamie Saft: organ, mellotron; Diego Voglino: drums; Vanessa Saft: vocal (8).