Hands On is drummer Robert Jospé's third release as a leader and his first for New York's Random Chance label. Jospé, whose credits include work with hard bop icon Joe Henderson, as well as Dave Liebman, Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie, and that mainstay of mainstream, Michael Brecker, formed Inner Rhythm as a touring unit in 1990. Comprised mostly of Jospé's fellow members of the University of Virginia's music department faculty, the septet also features pianist Bob Hallahan, percussionist Kevin Davis, trumpeter/fluegelhornist John D'earth, guitarist Royce Campbell, and tenor/soprano saxophonist Jeff Decker; bass duties on this disc are split between newcomer Elias Bailey and regular member Pete Spaar.
Stylistically, the group works a largely flat, elevator-friendly brew of Latin, funk, and straight-ahead sounds. Unsurprisingly, Brecker, who guested on Jospé's 1999 debut, Blue Blaze , seems to have left a deep impression on his band's style, as the tightly tandem, Brecker Brothers-style horn lines illustrate. And while the players here are all undeniable athletes, capable of astounding displays of precision and feats of technique, it's difficult to be moved. Overall, Hands On is an alienating chops-fest, 64 minutes of eight very capable musicians getting a kick out of listening to each of themselves play, perhaps occasionally coming together for some unison riffing but more intent on winning little gold stars for their quick, brainy runs instead of communicating with each other. Or, at least, expressing some heart and spleen.
Compounding things is the dilemma of production. Jospé's and co-producer Bob Dawson's sterile sheen is endemic of the better part of the post-fusion mainstream, even more so of most recent Latin jazz. Everything is sparkling and devoid of edge. No grit. No soul. One wonders if the players are even in the same room; the solos and horn parts so often sound overdubbed, or, at the very least, like the performers were ensconced in isolation booths. Why? Let the other instruments bleed all over the drum mics, leave the stray notes and glitches in there. Let the mistakes happen. It's okay to be human. That's what gives a record real, honest atmosphere, not something that sounds like the participants were afraid to goof or that each of their tracks was mailed in as an mp3 attachment.
It's hard to say which is more ironic, the fact that one the tracks here is named for Miles Davis (the Campbell-penned "Funk for Miles"), who famously fought to convince his musicians that their performances didn't need to be "perfect," or the very name of the label that released this disc.
All of this is not to say that there aren't some excellent performances here, usually at the hands of Hallahan, who certainly knows his way around Latin figures. His yearning solo on the Coltrane/Pharoah Sanders-laced "Higher Power," is a standout, and his reflective, Bill Evans-inspired reading of Wayne Shorter's "Virgo" that closes the album is simply beautiful. And though his airy soprano work often veers near Kenny G territory, Decker can really rip on tenor, as he lets us know on the percolating "'Round Seven." Underneath everything, Jospé keeps the frijolés jumping, sticking mainly to his toms and juggling the rhythm with patent finesse.
But, alas, such moments are not frequent enough to put this release above the pack. Indeed, this is exactly the kind of test tube music that puts a lot of people off to jazzbaby boomer/radio-pandering Beatles cover (in this case Help! 's "The Night Before") notwithstanding. 'Tis a bland blend, to be sure. And doubtlessly coming soon to a doctor's office near you.
Visit Robert Jospé on the web at www.robertjospe.com .