New Jersey jazz guitarist Nat Janoff leads a strong trio on the 1999 record Looking Through, which merits a look back in time. Janoff has played with Michael Brecker and Kenny Burrell. On this self-released debut, he leads a trio with the ace rhythm section of bassist Matthew Garrison and drummer Gene Lake through seven original tunes. Garrison's credits include John McLaughlin's Heart of Things band and sessions with David Fiuczynski and Steve Coleman; Gene Lake has played with Steve Coleman and Five Elements and David Fiuczynski's Screaming Headless Torsos.
The title track opens the record with a funky head played with a natural hollowbody jazz guitar sound; but after only one repetition, Janoff switches to a strident lead sound and tears into a 90 second guitar solo full of flashy speed picking. Garrison adds a bass solo, and his few bursts of speed equal Janoff's skill while more tastefully supporting the music. "Room with a View," with its somber head, offers smooth fretless bass chords and more blasts of speedy picking in the clean guitar tone, before Lake adds a crisp drum break that builds the tension back to a recapitulation. The flashy guitar in "Horizon" rings far more appropriate, applied in short bursts around more traditional jazz guitar lead lines like octaves and snappy chord variations. Garrison and Lake particularly shine here, with bass chords and light drum rolls providing an airy foundation.
"Home" marks the pinnacle of the record in a soaring, half-time head with quick ride cymbal work and an uplifting guitar melody. The bass takes the melody line in one section over guitar chords, but a low mixed guitar overdub unnecessarily doubles the bass melody. Lake cracks out a fat half-time in the minor key solo section under a snappy clean tone guitar lead. "Three Sunsets," a guitar duet in a light swing, subdues the mood by removing the all-star rhythm section, but more heavy-handed soloing drowns the lighter feel. "Orange" and "Spiral" speed up the pace after the duet with more ace rhythm work, like the offbeat ride cymbal in the head of "Spiral," and more needlessly fast speed picking in the overdubbed solo. Janoff and Garrison exchange bursts of fast notes in "Orange," but Lake outclasses them both with pulsing drum breaks.
Looking Through sounds crisply professional in the rolling fretless bass, crisp drums, and woody clean guitar, a high achievement for an independent release. Janoff's composing leaves a few memorable moments, including the funky head of the title track and the soaring melody of "Home," but he rarely develops these beyond vehicles for soloing. His repeated blurs of flashy speed picking wash over the music with all the subtlety of a fire hose.
Janoff oddly juxtaposes contemporary and classic influences on Looking Through. He plays classic jazz style chordings and heads with a clean, hollowbody rhythm guitar sound, but he stomps on a raspy lead tone and rips out gaudy speed metal arpeggios in his solos. He leads a traditional format jazz guitar trio, but he overdubs guitar solos and doubling tracks of some of the bass melodies, instead of tracking everything live to showcase the interaction among the musicians. Janoff lists contemporary and classic influences, including John McLaughlin and "the technical rock guitar masters of the '80s." His playing suggests that he has mastered the technical feats of some of these players, but far less of, for example, McLaughlin's subtlety in wielding his ability and his genius in composing. Until Janoff further develops both of those skills, he'll be an odd contradiction in jazz guitarist terms and just another fast player.