The downside of more accessible jazz education is a proliferation of young players who speak the language but lack the kind of spark that marks great jazz. And as "the new mainstream incorporates broader harmonic and rhythmic palettes, it's becoming even more difficult to avoid sounding purely cerebral. Not that there's anything wrong with an intellectual approach, but music also needs a physical component as well, something that speaks to the listener on a more instinctive emotional level.
Jhaptal is one of those records that straddles the line, at times providing a compelling mix of head and heart, elsewhere missing the mark by a hair's breadth. But guitarist Jamie Stewardson is a relative newcomer on this, his second release, and he demonstrates considerable potential. Stewardson studied with John Abercrombie and Mick Goodrickwhose "outside looking in approach is a clear reference pointand he also wears the influence of John McLaughlin and, perhaps even more so, the blues roots of John Scofield on his sleeve.
While Scofield's writing is invariably concerned with strong themes and visceral grooves, Stewardson is occasionally defeated by his own cleverness. For example, on the 5/4 piece "Cruel Traps, he adopts a slightly overdriven tone, navigating the challenging changes with ease. The top-notch players in the group, including the increasingly ubiquitous saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist John Hebert and drummer George Schuller, make the tune seem effortless. But Stewardson's solo, while filled with invention, lacks the emotional resonance to elevate it to a more transcendent place.
Still, the lightly funky groove and singable theme of "Dig Muse," which traverses shifting bar lines in an intriguing fashion, are somehow more approachable, and Stewardson's solo hits the mark more successfully. Combining lightning-fast runs with the occasional bent note, Stewardson sounds as if he's thinking less and feeling more. But Tony Malabyat first on his own, with Stewardson providing dissonant comping, and then soloing in tandem with the guitaristraises the temperature. Hebert and Schuller respond instinctively, making for an exciting listen.
Vibraphonist Alexei Tsiganov is another new name and, like Stewardson, he demonstrates plenty of promise. His four-mallet work behind Malaby on the metrically challengingbut, thanks to Hebert and Schuller, still swinging"T Can Shuffle creates a harmonic space that pushes Malaby yet also leaves him free to direct. His own solo, backed by Stewardson's close-voiced accompaniment, demonstrates a liberated view that should be interesting to watch unfold over time.
Jhaptal has high aspirations that it doesn't always meet. But there's plenty of evidence here of a focused player and thoughtful writer here to make it worth hearing, both on its own merits and as a reference point for future efforts.
Personnel: Jamie Stewardson: guitar; Tony Malaby: tenor saxophone; Alexei Tsiganov: vibraphone; John Hebert: bass; George Schuller: drums.