Geography is the only reason that James Muller isn't as well-known as he should be. Having spent most of his life in his native Australia, the guitarist, now in his early thirties, has racked up a significant number of releases including Sonic Fiction's Changing With the Times
, pianist Mark Isaac's Closer
and the recent JazzGroove Mothership Orchestra's The Mothership Plays the Music of Mike Nock
. Fusion fans may know him for his recent work with drummer Chad Wackerman
. Every project seems to reveal another side to this virtuosic player, begging the question: will the real
James Muller please stand up?
Kaboom, Muller's fourth album as a leader, comes from a session recorded during time spent in New York. He may be the sum of his influences, but his own voice emerges on this set of five self-penned tunes, plus two by fellow Aussie Sean Wayland and one standard. Muller eschews the heavily overdriven tone he used with Wackerman for a cleaner and occasionally chorused tone that's still got plenty of bite. Bassist Matt Penman and drummer Bill Stewart round out a trio rooted in the mainstream, but still filled with plenty of surprises.
Muller's chordal approach resembles John Scofield's, though he's less blues-informed. He communicates a hint of folksiness at times that references Pat Metheny, but he avoids any of the guitar icon's signatures, though his solo style is equally focused. The occasional descending legato run suggests Allan Holdsworth, but he's less abstruse in nature and isn't averse to letting his guitar sound like a guitar.
The charts are primarily solo vehicles, but they're memorable, despite their brevity. There's plenty of room to stretch, but Muller's innate sense of construction never loses sight of the bigger picture. Peppering linear phrases with attractive chordal voicings, Muller creates tension by taking things ever so slightly outside, but never at the expense of melodic development; this quality is shared by Stewart, one of today's most distinctly musical drummers.
The trio swings hard on "D Blues," evokes bittersweet melancholy on the balladic "Eindhoven" and burns brightly on the fiery "Chick Corea." There's plenty of energy, but despite Muller's pungent tone, the overall vibe is more about smooth surfaces than sharp edges. While there's underlying form, there's also a strong simpatico that lets the trio take enough chances to keep listeners on their toes.
With the number of guitarists flooding the jazz scene these days, it's hard to stand out, but Muller does just that on Kaboom, further evidence of a vibrant Australian scene that's still waiting to be discovered by an international audience.
Personnel: James Muller: guitar; Matt Penman: bass; Bill Stewart: drums.