Listening to guitarist John Dworkin's debut album stirs feelings similar to how a teacher must feel reading a term paper by an honors student: a genuine appreciation for their craft, with a hint of regret knowing they'll be outdone by the valedictorian.
Short Story mixes Montgomery/Metheny/Marsalis straight-ahead styles with a persistent touch of blues, resulting in one of those all-too-common efforts by largely obscure and therefore hungry musicians simply playing well. The biggest shortcoming of this album that also cites influences such as Charles Mingus and Brian Blade is in evoking the spirit of so many voices, Dworkin lacks a strong enough one of his own to emerge from the pack.
Dworkin does double duty as a composer, writing five of the seven songs for Short Story, available as of this writing at cdbaby.com . They possess a comforting, low-key quality; he's explaining his view of the musical world rather than pounding listeners over the head with it. He's also working with highly compatible co-players delivering thoughtful and largely harmonic passages without showing off.
Occasionally things are a bit too safe. The opening blues-bop composition "Lalli Pop" finds Dworkin slipping into too many repetitive phrases, although tenor saxophonist Dominic Lalli elevates their complexity a level during his solo on this namesake tune.
Reassurance of this album's worth, however, comes on "As Rose Rosaly" as Dworkin loosens up on what he calls his most important composition. The ten-minute song sifts through modernistic styles at various tempos, with Dworkin and trombonist Brett Sroka (who excels throughout) going full-tilt through a series of accessible phrases shifting so constantly it's poetry instead of prosaic. Everyone downshifts near the end, where Dworkin's harmonics embrace Sroka and Lalli during an ascent to near the song's starting point.
Another favorite he cites is "Song For Joel," an understated free rumbling with a consistent hint of buildup. The thick textures clear out for a lengthy solo midsection reminiscent of Metheny acoustic projects such as "Quartet" and "Trio." Similar qualities at a more furious pace come on "That's Right," while "Born Too Late" takes the principle back a few years to the Montgomery era. The best ballad is Dworkin's solo version of "Darn That Dream," as the freer setting seems to inspire extra color in his lyrics and supporting harmonies.
Short Story is an easy album to like, pleasing on a surface level and rewarding focused listeners for extra effort. Figuring out why it's missing that "elite" intangible is more difficult and probably not worthwhile; like an entry in a book of award-winning poems, it's worth enjoying for its own sake, as well as boosting arguments that the overall scene among younger players continues to look promising.
Personnel: John Dworkin, guitar; Dominic Lalli, tenor sax (1-3); Matthew Garrison, tenor sax (4-6); Brett Sroka,
trombone (2, 3, 6); Chris Haney, bass; Matt Dinsick, drums