Throughout his career, pianist Nick Manson has appeared in a wide variety of musical settings. He played in Lenny Kravitz's band in the early 80s, wrote Emmy-winning themes for television, and also composed a large oeuvre of commercial music. With Mercator, he returns to the jazz he grew up with, playing original compositions in a quartet format.
Manson is an excellent technician at the keyboard, and he brings to his compositions a very natural sense of melody. The songs on Mercator (the majority of which were penned by Manson) have heads that are quick to dig into. The easy, rolling melody of "All About Lennie" has an instant appeal that stays with the listener but its unobtrusive catchiness cleverly finds Manson deftly shifting meters throughout the chorus.
Some of the finest improvisation on the album comes from the underrated Andy Suzuki. The saxophonist plays most robustly when unadorned, as on "Good, Clean, Fun." The tenor solo, supported only by drums for the first two minutes of the track, feels raw and taut; an aggressive, shedding search for good sounds.
However, when Manson's Fender Rhodes bursts in, the musical environment is suddenly too full, overly rich. The trick of electric piano is to place statements carefully and rhythmically, announcing the groove without saying too much. Manson effects this balance perfectly in his solo intro to "All About Lennie." But when harmonies become too dense, as on "Good, Clean, Fun," the sound of the band risks being overwhelmed.
John Patitucci's presence on this record is a great boon to the band, and one worth waiting for. When the bassist finally solos for a lengthy introduction on "Behind Enemy Lines," it is with a burning energy and intensity that seems lacking in the ensemble portions of the song. Patitucci's solo, paired with Suzuki's improvisations, provides the greatest dynamism on the album.
Ultimately, though, Manson enchants, even if he doesn't showcase the full breadth of his chops here. The song "Roby," one of three compositions dedicated to the late Seattle musician Roby Duke on the album, begins with a tender two-note melody so simple and rich that one wishes it could go on and on. This lyric sweetness is a great strength, and one worth following in the future.
Personnel: Nick Manson: piano, Fender Rhodes; John Patitucci: bass; Ian Froman: drums; Andy Suzuki: tenor and soprano saxophone.