Nelson Montana: Jazz Un-Standards (2011)
How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
Nelson Montana wears many hats on Jazz Un-Standards. Playing, bass, drums, guitar and keyboards, providing all of the arrangements, singing, and producing a record is quite a chore. While Nelson brings some guest horn players and pianist Mark Berman into the fold to help flesh out his interpretations of standards and a pair of originals, the record still comes off like a one-man show in many respects. The ability and desire to take on so many roles is admirable, but the results are mixed.
Nelson's two strongest contributions are as bassist and arranger. His bass playing brings a sense of buoyancy and vigor to all of these pieces. His solos are full of fireworks and his walking lines drive the music. As an arranger, Nelson remains loyal to the vision of the composers he covers, while managing to put his own twist on each piece. Duke Ellington's "Cottontail," appropriately renamed "Boppintale," shoots out of the gate like a race car, while Wayne Shorter's "Pinocchio" is positively frenetic.
While the bass work and arrangements clearly point to Montana's musical strengths, his biggest weakness comes from the other side of the mixing board. The production values and balance can be problematic at times. The bass is way out front, while piano is often placed too far back in the mix. An artificial sense of sound characterizes the recordings and the drum sound isn't consistent. Cymbals are often right where they should be in the mix, but the tom sounds are very punchy and overly prominent. Montana's keyboard work, which is superfluous in many cases, also tends to taint the overall mix by giving it a dated patina that it doesn't deserve.
When Montana sits behind the drums, he covers a lot of ground. His drumming can be wholly gratifying at times, as demonstrated by his brushwork at the outset of "Ascendant," but that isn't always the case. When he settles into a certain feel (Lee Morgan's "Afrique"), he can get trapped in a rut that makes it seem like the horn players are soloing over a generic Music Minus One rhythm section. While the tone and timbre of Montana's voice might not scream "jazz singer," his skill and consistency in this department is clear. He confidently croons over his own supportive bass work on "I Wish You Love" and scats with skill and sophistication on "I'm Asking You Back/Au Privave."
The horn players occasionally fall prey to the balance and production issues, but their presence is always welcome: David Jensen's hearty tenor work is full of confidence and authority ("Pinocchio"); trumpeter/flugelhornist Alex Norris' contributions are superb; and alto saxophonist Mitchell Endick fills out the sound of the group on three numbers, adding to the album's endemic aural variety.
While Jazz Unstandards has some drawbacks, it also has lots to enjoy as Montana uses his jack-of-all-trades background to explore a wonderful cross-section of classic songs.
Track Listing: Four; Seven Meditations; Afrique; Most Of Me; I'm Asking You/Au Privave; Boppintale; Ascendant; Wess Is More; Pinocchio; Gingerbread Boy; I Wish You Love.
Personnel: Nelson Montana: bass, drums, keyboard, guitar, vocals; Alexander Norris: trumpet and flugelhorn (1, 2, 3, 5-7, 9); David Jensen: tenor saxophone (1, 3, 6-9); Mitchell Endick: alto saxophone, tenor saxophone and flute (3, 5, 7); Mark Berman: piano (1, 4-6, 9).
Record Label: Self Produced
Style: Fusion/Progressive Rock