Cory Combs featuring John Hollenbeck and Dan Willis: Valencia
One of 2006's finest slices of modern jazz has been turned in by a high school music teacher! Cory Combs teaches in San Francisco's Mission District, at a school on Valencia Street, where he says we can see "every facet of life represented. He's a virtuoso practitioner of seven-stringed electric bass, on which he displays a deft touch and colossal sound. But it's his composing talent and aesthetic that separate him from most electric extra-stringed bassists.
While writing the music for Valencia, Combs tried to capture "the surreal nature of the everyday on Valencia Street. He's accomplished this admirably by marrying the concept to a "downtown style that would sit comfortably at Tonic. His band mates, saxophonist Dan Willis and percussionist John Hollenbeck, often do. Hollenbeck's presence leads me to think Combs would make a fine substitute, or perhaps addition, to his Claudia Quintetor that this disc could have been subtitled the Claudia Power Trio. It's that good and certainly my find of the year so far.
"Money In Your Pocket fittingly begins with a chops and color-laden excursion by Hollenbeck, under a simple funky motif voiced in unison by Combs and Willis. Combs' complex, octave-divider beefed fills quickly throttle back to bass-ics before hunkering down to a nastier elastic slide groove. What seems like a funny, syncopated ending segues into a short, fretless-sounding solo section for Combs, then into a dixieland-style feature for Willis. Here, as throughout, it's Combs who seems to be pulling off the jolting genre- jumping with the least effort, exploiting the full range and sound palette of a 7-string behemoth Bee Bass, sometimes in a single measure.
"Monk In A Red Wagon follows seamlessly. It's a romantic, Lester meets Thelonious, timeless and elegant walk through the lower east side. Dig Hollenbecks's brush-hewn textures, Combs' judicious and ultra-cleanly mixed use of sonically definitive ultra-low end, and the way that it's Willis who swings the tune most while simultaneously being the sole melodist. The song isolates you with it, placing the two of you alone for a while, but in the end, implores a long, life-affirming, deep breath.
"Amnesia opens with Combs' thick, Percy Jones-esque, fretless growl surrounding a gentle melody. This is subtly broken by an enharmonic splay produced by a single chord voiced over the entire seven string range of the bass. All this introduces a samba! An elegant distillate of Brazilian styles, it has Combs dropping in some ultra-hip, low-end chromaticism and finger funk that, theoretically, shouldn't sound as great as it does, capping off eleven minutes of sophisticated form-fitting yet form-defying tightness.
"Sometimes It All Falls Into Place does. It begins with a totally clean, seemingly impossible intro with every note of the angular theme played by the entire trio, Hollenbeck holding forth on drums a la Terry Bozzio in his "orchestral settings. Much is written about composer-leader extraordinaire Hollenbeck , but discussion of his Bruford-comparable mighty chops is too often glossed over. After listening to this cut, there remains no question he should be regarded, as a pure player, among the world's elite skin- pummelers. Combs only solos in snippets when Willis drops off, injecting judicious use of what sounds like comped guitar chords on what could not possibly be bass. The track features a chops-laced performance by Willis on soprano, with an outro that is an even more complex extension of the intro.
The suite of songs is laced together by interludes. Some stand alone, like "Sunny Disposition," where Combs uses a slapped and buzzed cello against Willis' splats and bleats against textures from Hollenbeck's melodica, to craft a haunting, skeletal funk appropriate for a Tim Burton breakdance. On "Wind Up Monkey," simple but effective thumbed bass and punk rock double bass-pedal work (chopswatchers note: Hollenbeck only uses a single pedal) support the voracious vitriol of Willis' inside-out Breckerisms.
These interludes sometimes fuse into suites, as with "Know What The Dream Was? /"Miyazaki. The first features Combs following the melodic and, just as importantly, the rhythmic line of his six-year-old niece's answer to the question she poses in the title, following her description of a dream, into startling fretless-sounding territory (which is actually executed on a fretted bass). This forty seconds will evoke a tear from any parent or acquaintance of the not-uncommon-very-verbal-kindergartner. An extremely effective segue follows, as the child's voice fades into an accordion/bandoleon melody, as supplied by Hollenbeck's melodica, for a bohemian fantasy-dance. Also featuring toy piano, the music evokes imagery of an innocent dream-dance, with the same little girl swirling with a piece of chiffon. It's fitting that this cinematic theme bears the name of the world's greatest maker of children's anime.
How and why did a high school music teacher hook up with such extraordinary and empathetic band mates to make such a stellar out-of-left field statement? The answer is heartening. This recording is the fruit of the continuing relationship between three close friends, forged in rehearsal rooms and recital halls at the Eastman School.
Why can't the music business, or to narrow the focus, the jazz community, support and embrace such an up-and-coming artist as Cory Combs, or an independently released gem such as this? The answer to this question is far less encouraging.
Tracks: Money In Your Pocket And A Room With A View; Monk In The Red Wagon; Tiny Insects; Amnesia; The California, Wyoming Border; Foreign Postmark; Heavy; Victory Lap For The Sporting Individual; Wind Up Monkey; Know What The Dream Was?; Miyazaki; Sunny Disposition; Sometimes It All Falls Into Place-The Dogs Are Groomed And Well; Free #4 V.2; 1974; Absinthe; Miyazaki Reprise.
Personnel: Cory Combs: bass, cello; John Hollenbeck: drums, percussion, melodica; Dan Willis: saxophones; Mike Marshall: mandolin (8).