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It is often necessary to do a cost-benefit analysis when including a "name" on a jazz recording. Will the added recognition be offset either by a lackluster performance that seems purely mercenary or a star shining that much brighter than those around them, creating unevenness?
One imagines that guitarist Paul Hemmings has made this analysis several times already over the course of his short career. His first album featured saxophonist Eric Alexander; his second was a frankly too-straight-to-be-successful live rendition of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1967) and his third augments his trio with saxophone legend John Tchicai. But for Letter from America, Hemmings has produced balance in both working environment and choice of guest.
Tchicai has excelled in all situations in which he has been placed for his particular mix of talent and versatility. It may be an African background raised in Scandinavia or maybe post-bop skills directed by a free jazz mind, but he never seems out of place.
On Letter From America, Tchicai is his usual resourceful self in one of the stranger entries into his discography. Hemmings' album, as implied by the title, is an eclectic mélange of styles, ostensibly representing the cultures that exist between his native California and his adopted New York home. Reggae jostles elbows with heavy rock, modern doo-wop walks around bleak ECM landscapes, calypsos emerge from ballads. Hemmings' guitar changes accordingly with each state line crossed, ably supported by the malleable work of bassist Gaku Takanashi (on acoustic and electric of course) and drummer Adam Issadore.
It was at a CD release party at the Knitting Factory's Old Office in New York in February, 2008 that demonstrated how well Tchicai works with this band. What would at first seem an odd fit revealed that Tchicai's husky tenor sax can be equal parts Big Jay McNeely and Archie Shepp.
The show's first set presented the first few tracks of the album as is, slightly expanded but keeping some of the peripheral sounds of "Radio Free America" and "A Conversation in Central Park," as played through Hemmings' iPod. Takanashi made a more forceful impression live than he does on the album and Hemmings' solos placed him in a lineage that begins and ends with Larry Coryell, but Tchicai still refused to take over the proceedings as he so easily could. That changed only during a raucous version of Johnny Dyani's "Appear," that could have been on the album as yet another stylistic exploration.
Track Listing: Under A New Mexico Sky; Radio Free America; Venice Beach Boardwalk; The Battle Of New York City; A Conversation In Central Park; Lady Dynamite; The Pollock Galaxy; Ous Ous; Code (Re)d; Under A New Mexico Sky (Reprise).
Personnel: John Tchicai: tenor saxophone; Paul Hemmings: electric guitar, loops, effects & samples; Gaku Takanashi: upright and electric basses; Adam Issadore: drums, percussion).