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When you think of lead instruments in jazz, the electric mandolin probably doesn't spring to mind. However, if all its practitioners could match the dexterity and achieve the same feel as Michael Lampert, perhaps that would change. In Lampert's hands, the instrument sounds nothing like what fans of bluegrass would expect. Instead, it sounds closer to a guitar. While listening to Blue Gardenia, I subconsciously began to believe that the music was created by a six-string.
However, putting aside the issue of instrumentation, it should be said that Lampert and his quartet play strong, straightforward jazz with the blues an ever-present force. Their take on Fats Domino's immortal "I'm Walking is rollicking and infectious, with spry piano work from Vern Waldron and jumping drums from Jeff Fish. Lampert checks in with a brief but insistent solo before yielding to bassist Timothy Emmons. At the other end of the spectrum is the lovely and delicate title track. Waldron and Lampert seem to complete each other's thoughts, while Emmons stands out by virtue of expertly keeping time and still being delightfully unpredictable and melodic.
One of the true joys of jazz is to hear musicians explore their instruments and reveal new possibilities. Blue Gardenia provides the pleasure of hearing the electric mandolin played with imagination and great skill. Even better is the fact that the album is much more than just a technical exercise. It showcases musicians playing with more than enough feeling to match their instrumental prowess.