On the face of it, Shadow Box
, Bob DeVos
' fifth outing as a leader, is a sixty minute case study of the evolution of the organ combo, one of the music's most popular and enduring formats. DeVos tips his hat to legendary individuals (some of whom he played with in the early stages of his career) like Wild Bill Davis
, Jimmy Smith
, Trudy Pitts
, Charles Earland
, Richard "Groove" Holmes
, Wes Montgomery
with Melvin Rhyne
, Jimmy McGriff
, and Larry Young
. Though you can hear echoes of them in most of the disc's eleven tracks, there's something else at work here. A core trio comprised of DeVos' guitar, the Hammond B3 organ of Dan Kostelnik, and the drums of Steve Johns
(tenor saxophonist Ralph Bowen
joins them on five tracks), has forged an identity that transcends all influences.
The trio's sound is easier to listen than to pigeonhole. On the one hand, their momentum and energy level never flags; on the other, they don't resort to any obvious attention getting devices. A brisk bossa nova treatment of Clare Fischer
's "Pensativa" and a lively Latin rendition of Wes Montgomery's "Twisted Blues" generate a considerable amount of heat that's carefully spread out over the course of each track. The effect is sustained, tightly coiled excitement that doesn't boil over or reach a climax.
Two factors conspire to make these cuts move in a lively, measured manner. The loose-limbed, agitated movement of Johns' rim knocks and accents to all of the drums introduce an element of badinage inside of an otherwise firm pocket. He consistently peppers his cohorts with decisive commentary, but stops short of hitting hard or divisively. DeVos' accompaniment during Kostelnik's share of the heads and on the organist's solos is another, more tightly executed facet of the band's momentum. Firmly embedded inside the music as a whole, his persistent, exacting chords might be easy to take for granted, yet they're every bit as invigorating as Johns' drums.
The trio shows another side of its ability to introduce and hold a groove tightly throughout "Blue Print," one of DeVos' five compositions on the disc. The slow-to-medium tempo and familiar, easygoing melody creates an ambiance that's positioned somewhere between studied cool and genuine passion. Like a lot of the trio's work, it doesn't pay off in flagrant ways. It doesn't tear your heart out, and it doesn't leave you limp. Capturing the spiritnot the structureof the blues, the track gradually seeps into one's consciousness and doesn't let go.
DeVos' solos are fluid, calculated edifices which tread lightly instead of diving into the emotional realm; coupled with his ability to sustain an improvised line without any sign of strain, this reserve contains a kind of tension that's gratifying because of the absence of any resolution. The leader's turn on "Blue Print" never quite divorces itself from the head; in one instance, he returns to the chords that open the tune's bridge. Playing with a full, rounded, lightly ringing tone, amidst a host of carefully etched blues locutions DeVos deftly releases 16th note runs that are as precise as his chording. Each of them has a slightly different character and emphasis. The first one sounds as if it's been lifted by the wind and is gradually floating back to earth. The rest, in varying degrees, maintain the pleasant, behind the beat feel that characterizes the entire track.
Kostelnik has stripped down the vocabulary of the modern jazz organ to its bare essentials. There's no fat or excess of any kind. And not unlike DeVos, he has his own take on familiar materials. A short "Blue Print" solo ostensibly sounds like any number of Kostelnik's illustrious predecessors; but listen closely and you hear his earthy, shrewd way of snapping phrases apart and putting them back in order before the slightest hint of disarray ensues.
The five tracks with Bowen on board widen the music's scope without upending the trio's sound. He is, by far, the most effusive, unpredictable voice on the record. There's a striking contrast between the head of DeVos' "Maine Stay," a soulful, carefully constructed theme which contains traces of Thelonious Monk
, and the solo which follows. Not unlike any number of contemporary saxophonists, Bowen wrestles with several things in short-ordersuch as rapid shifts in velocity, range, timbre, and timing, as well as an acute awareness of the jazz traditionand puts everything together in a package that's better for not being neatly wrapped. He obsessively reworks a phrase during the course of several bars; makes sudden leaps into the upper register; briefly settles into an assured groove that would draw shouts of approval by chitlin' circuit audiences; and unleashes long, imploding, jackhammer runs that are almost unbearably claustrophobic. The most impressive thing about all of this isn't his superior execution; it's the way in which, despite the fluctuations, Bowen never leaves DeVos, Kostelnik and Johns behind.
DeVos might have played things safe, and perhaps made an equally fine record, by presenting the trio in all of its cautious, burnished glory; instead, he chose to embrace the loose ends that Bowen brings to the table. All in all, it was an admirable decision by a mature artist who continues to grow and evolve in ways that matter.