It's not easy to pin New York guitarist Steve Cardenas
down to a few main attributes. His playing is unassuming, his compositions are equally subtle and his persona possessed of an even more humble nature, leaving him somewhat hidden in the shadows of the contemporary jazz world. Yet the veteran guitarist has been going at it now for over a quarter century, recording and playing with some of the finest international jazz heavy-weights of today, yesterday and tomorrow. Between Adam Nussbaum
's Lead Belly Project, John Patitucci
's Electric Guitar Quartet and John Cowherd
's Mercy Project, Cardenas has leant his gentle guitar lines to some of the most noteworthy modern jazz records of the past decade. While less prominent in the release calendar, his own work as leader is at least as captivating and potent as his sideman gigs and reveals a gentleman guitarist whose sophisticated touch is matched by compositional prowess. All his virtues are demonstrated on Blue Has a Range
, and emotively captured and executed by the dream team of drummer Brian Blade
, Cowherd on keys and Ben Allison
One thing that does stand out as striking in Cardenas' guitar playing and composing is the avoidance of chords. Throughout the record, a blend of post-bop heads and structures of more modern ambition, Cardenas presents single line melodies, horizontal licks and dexterous solos without dwelling on acrobatic harmonic exercises. A peculiarity which he and Cowherd coincidentally (or not so much by accident at all) share in common. It is only through the layering of the different instruments that a harmonic framework and forces of tension are born. Each voice is in desperate need of the other to be able to fulfill its purpose.
The interplay between the four is intimate, patient and marked by a strong feeling of familiarity between the players. They've been a fixed unit for years now. Melodic fragments, rhythmical impulses and dynamic cues are ignited by one, caught by the other and passed on to the next as by one single organism in constant motion. There's a special moment in "The Lost and Found" in which Cardenas alters a fragment of the tune's head in improvisatory fashion, before Cowherd reacts to it, breathes the idea in and out again and then leads its core down unexpected yet seemingly obvious adventures. The light- heartedness with which the pianist recognizes the matter at hand, the way it has been altered and then sequenced as an impetus for exercises on black and white is nothing less than masterful. His never losing touch to the emotional connection of the tune while doing so only adds to this sense of exceptional musicianship.
In the same smooth way that exercises like "Reflector" or "Siquijor" conform to the stylistic approach of the opener, other takes oppose it. "Blue Language" is an ode to the blues form and finds Cardenas performing virtuoso chord melody shapes as a solo introduction to the tune. Cowherd enters in support of the blue notes exclusively, before the deconstructed blues slowly turns into a collective celebration of an ancient tradition. "Language of Love" opposes said blues vocabulary with the blues' very own offspring in a heavy exhibition of romantic RnB balladry. Even the smooth notion is objected to towards the end of the album, where fuzzy dissonances are traded between Cowherd and Cardenas in a vigorous and rhythmically driven way on "Signpost Up Ahead." John Scofield
might have something to do with the twangy and humorous lines Cardenas throws at Brian Blade
's rare uproar of open hi-hat crashes and thunderous drum rolls.
When everything's said and done, "Blue Has a Range" doesn't change the game of how jazz is approached in a quartet lead by guitar. What the album does achieve, is to present an overlooked guitarist at the very peak of his creativity and technical dexterity. The title of the record is embodied by the coherent appeal of this collection of songs, which simultaneously demonstrates a wide range of nuance and depth within a specific realm of sound. There might not be a more exiting color's range to discover than blue, and there's probably none more suitable for the job than Steve Cardenas
Lost and Found; Blue Language; Language of Love; Highline; Fern's Guitar; Reflector; Siquijor; Signpost Up Ahead; Blue Has a Range.