Belgian guitarist Gilbert Isban is a formidable nylon finger-picking veteran on everything from classical to avant-garde. He makes his debut as a composer and arranger on his 13th albumand in this case, that proves to be a lucky number.
Water With A Smile is another of those albums purporting the equation
Latin + world + acoustic folk/rock = innovative jazz
but listening to these dozen songs, it's clear that's exactly what this is. Vocalist Lea Van Loo and a trio of instrumentalists turn in efforts capable of dominating on their own, but the well-planned organic soundscapes result in a consistently accessible session where they also form a coherent whole.
Loo's presence does make this a different album than some of Isban's fans are used to, partially for the obvious reason she becomes the primary focus. Her midrange lilt matches well with Isban's guitar range. The lyrics, while not vapid, are pretty much all short poems on common themes of love and reflecting on life that don't inspire in themselves. Also, she sings with a consistency likely to be enjoyed for its smoothness or criticized for lack of uniqueness, with a few adventures into scat, like on the rumbling "Water With A Smile. But given the apparent overall goal of a group texture, her tonal approach seems to be the correct one.
You have to pick and choose to hear Isbin's featured momentswith most of the songs two to four minutes long, there simply isn't much solo space. His approach in both support and soloing leans toward meditative thoughtfulness, rather than exhibitions of speedy technique. As with Loo's vocals, it feels more like a benefit to the whole than deprivation.
Taking a different route is Peter Van Gheluwe, who at times is an impossible-to-ignore background presence on at least a dozen different percussion instruments, playing world textures that are both light and rich, with a sound quality so clear beats stand out like solo instruments. In his case the showcase presence is a huge factor in separating this album from scores of others with similar concepts. Bassist Vincent de Laat can at times be overlooked with understated classical support, but he also makes unexpected drops into the foreground with slap bass accompaniments on flamenco tunes like "Suite For Dark Shades and "Simple Pleasure.
As a showcase for Isban's composing and arranging talents, Water With A Smile is an unquestionable success. Those wanting to hear more of the guitarist will find other albums more satisfying, but this one is likely to appeal to a much larger crowd. It's accessible to the mainstream without condescending, and diverse without feeling false to the ethnic genres it pursues. All that's needed are lyrics capable of captivating listeners after being seduced by the instrumentation, and Isbin will have a group other acts will find tough to knock from the throne.
Personnel: Gilbert Isban, guitar; Lea Van Loo, vocals; Peter Van Gheluwe, percussion; Vincent de Laat,