What do you do in a coffeehouse besides sip cappuccino and nibble on some tasty kind of baked dessert product? Darrell Grant knows. He's written a short story to go along with his fourth album. The story, somewhat autobiographical, tells of a musician who's moved away from the hustle and bustle of the big city to a place where folks slow down once in a while and enjoy each other's company over coffee. Similarly, Grant's modern mainstream album slows things down during ballads and turns up the heat elsewhere. Recorded before an appreciative audience at The Little Theater in Rochester, New York, Grant's session retains the spontaneity that comes with a live session while his quintet achieves a tight bond on stage.
Grant's percussive style flows gently and yet manages to combine syncopation and swing with his intended lyricism. The pianist's bouncy "Spring Skylight" weaves several melodic lines into the song as a consonant harmony spreads out in both directions. By design, Grant's performance involves several layers of agreeable harmony. Joe Locke's vibraphone adds a resounding layer on top of the others, letting phrases ring out seamlessly while sustaining chord combinations. His two-mallet approach to melody brings action to the session that parallels Grant's exciting right-hand keyboard work. Donald Harrison's sleek alto saxophone delivers loping melodies that are quite effective on ballads such as "Quiet Times" and "You Must Believe in Spring." He and Locke work in tandem to double up at times and to trade phrases at other times. Both share a love of seamless phrasing.
Brian Blade's shimmery brush and cymbal textures color the ballads appropriately, while his stickwork on pieces such as "If I Should Lose You" and Locke's up-tempo "Slander" create the smoke this album's title suggests. Deep bass riffs from Bob Stata doubled by Grant's left hand create a powerful force that rides this modern mainstream session through storm and sunshine. Highly recommended, Smokin' Java brings timeless music into the arena with a balance of muscular power and peaceful daydreams.
Personnel: Darrell Grant: piano; Joe Locke: vibraphone; Donald Harrison: alto saxophone; Bob Stata: acoustic bass; Brian Blade: drums.