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Jesse Van Ruller: Circles

David A. Orthmann By

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Alluding to funk, soul, as well as a number of modern jazz styles, guitarist Jesse Van Ruller’s quartet functions in a space of its own making that is outside of any familiar category. Both difficult to define and hugely enjoyable, the music features a few significant characteristics. Despite the presence of the leader’s electric guitar and Sam Yahel’s Hammond B-3 organ, the band maintains an essentially traditional acoustic jazz sound. Further, Van Ruller, Yahel, tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, and drummer Bill Stewart are all virtuosos who never try to show off or stand out. Although each of them is also a fine ensemble player, they nonetheless maintain a certain, individualistic distance from one another that gives the music a cerebral, somewhat detached feel.

“One” is a bright, sketchy tune (Andrew Hill comes to mind) that impatiently presses ahead to solos by each band member. Displaying a full, twangy sound, the guitarist’s lines hurtle forward almost without pause, running parallel to the constant ping of Stewart’s ride cymbal. Underlying dexterity similar to Van Ruller’s, Blake’s improvisation has a peevish quality, his high notes chafing against the composition’s structure and the rhythm section. For the most part Yahel fashions a solo out of smart melodic fragments and odd digressions. In the midst of a repeat of the head, Stewart blows over a vamp for about 30 seconds. Putting together flurries of strokes to every drum and cymbal, his calculated chaos swings in a rambling manner.

Ruller’s ballad “Here Comes The Sun” has the kind of melody that inspires lyric writers to make fresh observations about matters of the heart. Initially proceeding cautiously, as if fearful of disturbing the serenity, his solo gradually digs deeper, deftly maneuvering around Yahel’s brief chordal swells. Blake takes a more pronounced course, dramatically announcing his presence in the first few bars, then eventually working the upper register of the horn with beautifully executed cries that sound as if he’s searching for something that is, emotionally speaking, out of reach.

The recording’s standout track, Blake’s “Black Dahlia,” is a crafty, quasi-funk concoction (subtly driven by Stewart’s abridged bugaloo beat) that sports a hummable melody, and regularly evolving into straight jazz time. At first seeming oblivious to Stewart’s supple bursts of energy, Blake constructs another stunning solo, playing off of the drummer’s inflections, and progressively generating a density that becomes nearly claustrophobic. Expertly riding the straight-ahead swing of the organ and drums, Van Ruller sounds positively bubbly, at first playing brief, economic phrases, then stretching out, integrating pregnant pauses into several brisk, climactic passages.


Track Listing: 1. One; 2. Circles; 3. Here Comes The Sun; 4. Black Dahlia; 5. 33 Waltz; 6. Zoab; 7. Gone With The Wind; 8. Secret Champ.

Personnel: Jesse Van Ruller--guitar; Seamus Blake--tenor sax; Sam Yahel--Hammond B-3 organ; Bill Stewart-- drums.

Title: Circles | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Criss Cross

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