No matter how you try and slice it, Stephen Philip Haager's debut release Sunday on the Bay
is a collection of what essentially can be described as lounge music. Almost all the tracks follow the "smooth jazz" (VERY smooth) style of composition: pseudo-funky percussion (acoustic and programmed) and bass work, with the standard soprano sax and piano thrown in for good measure. Despite its cookie cutter nature, Sunday on the Bay
does contains some nice instrumental work and will definitely calm your soul; however, it unfortunately doesn't contain quite enough substance to really sink your teeth into.
What's interesting about this release is despite pianist Haager being the sole composer of all the tracks, the piano playing is somewhat lacking in comparison to some of John James' soprano sax work (especially on the track "Julia") and Ernie Nunez's bass playing. While it is certainly admirable that Haager leaves plenty of room for the other musicians, I expected a little more out of the piano bits on the album - I'm sure he is an accomplished musician, and I'd like to hear him let loose a little more on future efforts. Other standout moments on Sunday on the Bay include the opening 12-string guitar work on "Shine On," some nice horn arrangements on the title cut, and some VERY nice drumming on "Julia". Given that these folks know how to play their instruments proficiently, I wondered why so much restraint was shown on the tracks; if Haager and Co. perhaps would experiment more with faster tempos and more eclectic soloing, I feel future releases from this group would be much more engaging and interesting.
Part of the reason that this release fails to impress is that Haager seems content to stay within the quite limited realm of "smooth jazz." If the intent of Sunday on the Bay was to create a CD with very relaxing background music, the Haager has succeeded admirably. However, if Haager wished Sunday to be musically challenging and an engaging listen I'm afraid he's fallen a bit short. With more robust compositions and more adventurous playing, I'm sure these guys could improve on their next release.