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Paul Bollenback: Brightness of Being

John Kelman By

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Good music is where you find it, and breadth of stylistic interest needn't dilute a distinguishable voice. Like Bill Frisell's East/West (Nonesuch, 2005), guitarist Paul Bollenback's Brightness of Being brings these points home most effectively. While Bollenback and Vic Juris are two very different players (Bollenbeck is also younger), both remain sadly underappreciated, despite their ability to elevate every project into something special. Looking at Bollenback's substantial catalogue of recorded work, one can find the same pattern emerging—which is really a distinct lack of pattern.

While unequivocally mainstream, Brightness of Being is no retro relic. There's nary a standard to be found, although Bollenback places some contemporary songs into straight-ahead but fluidly open contexts. Saxophonist David "Fathead Newman appears on two tributes to the late Ray Charles: "Unchain My Heart, which has a '60s Blue Note soul-jazz vibe; and "You Don't Know Me, which Bollenback relocates from country juke joint to late night smoky bar.

But Bollenback interprets even familiar material with an open-minded and unencumbered approach. He constructs his solos every bit as well as Pat Metheny does, but they somehow feel looser. He thinks fast on his feet, effortlessly shifting from clean lines to complex chordal passages, yet always relying on a clear conception and strong narrative development.

Bollenback reinvents Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing, which also features saxophonists Gary Thomas and Tim Garland. Opening almost unrecognizably, the three players enter a heated exchange, ultimately finding their way to the complex chord changes that bridge the chorus and verse. They respect Wonder's melodicism, but Bollenback proves adept at improvising in ways that might seem reckless if they didn't make so much sense. The song ultimately ends as it began—Bollenback, Garland and Thomas in virtual free fall, with bassist James Genus and drummer Terri-Lyne Carrington offering intuitive and responsive support.

Bollenback's ability to envision greater possibilities is especially vivid in his adaptation of Garcia de Leon's "El Desierto, which starts as a gentle tone poem but then picks up steam for his solo. Again, he skirts the edges of abandon but never loses focus—a characteristic equally applicable to Garland's nimble soprano solo. Bollenback's imaginative three-part adaptation of Puccini's "Dark Eyes of Floria from Tosca moves from freedom to form, temporal elasticity to loose swing, change-based improvisation to more open-ended modality.

Bollenback's writing demonstrates similar adaptability. "Together may sound straightforward, but its inherent complexity challenges everyone to find common melodic threads. The gently Latin-inflected "Breathe, where Bollenback plays classical guitar, features Chris McNulty's sultry tone in a Norma Winstone-like wordless vocal. The set closes with "Siberian Passages, another deceptive piece where McNulty again mirrors Bollenback, who manages to make the elaborate flow with ease while retaining a simmering intensity.

No one album can tell the whole story on Paul Bollenback. But certainly more than any record he's led to date, Brightness of Being demonstrates an out-of-the-box thinker working freely in a compositionally refined yet wholly accessible mainstream context.


Track Listing: Together; Unchain My Heart; Don't You Worry About a Thing; Breathe; You Don't Know Me; 7 a.m. Special; El Desierto; Dark Eyes of Floria Tosca Part 1-3; Philadelphia; Siberian Passages.

Personnel: Paul Bollenback: guitar; David "Fathead" Newman: tenor saxophone; Tim Garland: soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Gary Thomas: tenor saxophone; James Genus: bass; Terri-Lyne Carrington: drums; Ari Hoenig: drums; Chris McNulty: vocals.

Title: Brightness of Being | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Elefant Dreams Records

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