How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
Named after a town in Iowa, where drummer Steve Jennings' grandparents used to live, Story City is an octet of likeminded musicians exploring the interface between jazz and more pop-oriented styles. Jennings not only founded the group, but also co-leads it with bassist Terry Burns on Story City's debut, Time and Materials.
The emphasis is on pleasant harmonies and complex arrangements rather than individual improvisations, as the group stays safely close to the melodies. The title track, for example, is more of an instrumental R&B piece, with electronics enhancing a nocturnal mood. Guitarist Karl Koopman adds a few bluesy touches, while Sean Turner's light and aerie piano and Andrew Schwandt's fluid saxophone flirt with ambient music.
Smooth Jazz stylings are heard on "Lead Sky," with its pleasant vamps and electronically created atmosphere, with Turner and Koopman punctuating the tune with tame if not timid solos. The gospel-tinged "Truth to Power" meanders a bit too long, despite its uplifting theme, with contemporary accents abounding in Schwandt's silky soprano and Koopman's gentle guitar. The interesting contrast between Dave Schmalenberger's primal mallets, Koopman's blistering guitar and Schwandt's wailing tenor, however, save the piece from mediocrity.
Soulful compositions like "Fitzwright Inn" and "Silent Joe" allow Schwandt to channel his inner bluesman, with his acerbic, honking solo on the former and stimulating tenor duel with Koopman on the latter. Turner's keyboard work adds a gutbucket sound to both songs.
There is also the occasional appearance of more rock-oriented material. "Dark Place" has the melodic structure of a soft rock ballad, with rhythmic but unobtrusive percussion and wordless vocals. "Loops," on the other hand, harks back to fusion era experiments, with Burns' electric bass setting the beat and his mellifluous duet with Schwandt giving it emotional depth. The result is well-polished and enjoyable, even though it lacks the rawness of classics of genre like trumpeter Miles Davis
Even though it may not be for purists, this highly engaging freshman album from an immensely talented ensemble has strong musicianship and enough variety to have a wide appeal.
Track Listing: Drake Place; Loops; Fitzwright Inn; Time and Materials; Truth to Power; Hilltop; Lead Sky;
Gratitude; Silent Joe.
Personnel: Andrew Schwandt: saxophones; Karl Koopman: guitar; Steve Jennings: drums; Terry Burns: bass; Sean Turner: keyboards; Steve Faison: vocals and percussion; Shai Hayo: percussion; Dave Schmalenberger: mallets.