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Frank Kohl: Pacific


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: Frank Kohl: Pacific
An old adage maintains that New York City is the Jazz capital of the world. While that may still ring true, there are fertile jazz scenes scattered all over the country where plenty of potent players have been flying under the radar. Seattle guitarist Frank Kohl, who has been quietly going about the business of making beautiful music for four decades, is one such prodigious talent deserving of wider recognition. An accomplished player who sites Wes Montgomery, George Benson and Jim Hall as important role models, Kohl's solo excursion on Pacific brings to mind yet another significant influence—Joe Pass.

"He was an enormous influence on me, the only difference being that he does everything in tempo most of the time, and I don't," said Kohl, whose penchant for letting a song breathe, being guided by an internalized melody rather then an imposed tempo, sets him apart from the steady swinging standard setter. In Kohl's hands, each tune is an expedition, and his patient, painterly approach uncovers jewels.

"Some people have said that they miss the tempo thing in this new record," said Frank of his purposeful use of space throughout these 13 tracks. "But l like the more meditative part of it, where if you have the melody inside of you, you can forget about the fact that maybe you just put six beats in the last bar or that you're changing the time as you go." It's a process that allows Kohl to truly follow his heart in tackling these nine standards and four originals.

Kohl's rich, gorgeous tone, deliberate lines and perfectly integrated chords and bass lines have characterized his playing since the '80s. The New York native attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston from 1972 to 1976, graduating with honors before returning to hometown NYC. He released his solo debut in 1981, Reform, featuring bassist Michael Moore, then relocated to the Bay Area in 1983 before settling into Seattle in 1990. His second album as a leader, 2008's Coast to Coast, was a quartet recording with his brother, pianist Tom Kohl, bassist Steve Roane, and drummers Jerry Fitzgerald and Jon Doty. He followed with two other quartet recordings featuring his brother Tom, bassist Steve LaSpina and drummer Doty—2013's Invisible Man and 2017's Rising Tide. An intimate trio outing in 2020, The Crossing, featuring him with bassist LaSpina and fellow guitarist, frequent duo partner and kindred spirit John Stowell, another under-recognized jazz guitar master from the Pacific Northwest. Kohl's other 2020 release, the aptly titled Solitude, was done during the pandemic and also marked his first foray on record into solo guitar.

With Pacific, Kohl's commanding technique and unerring facility once again conjure up comparisons to Joe Pass, specifically his 1973 solo masterpiece, Virtuoso. Recorded at David Lange Studios in Edgewood, Washington, just outside Seattle, 'Pacific' showcases the guitarist obvious gifts along with his deep love of melody.

The collection opens with the bluesy meditation "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You," which has him deftly extrapolating on the soulful theme, spinning serpentine lines while dropping in hints of Pat Martino-isms along the way. Kohl's beautiful ballad "With Tears of Joy" is tinged with an undercurrent of melancholy while also conveying a positive message. "That's just about the joy of having grandkids," he said. "I'm always moved when something can be the opposite of what you think it is, like the title suggests. You think of tears as sorrow, but I love it when you can turn it around and make it a different thing. One of my tunes from way back when is called 'Bright Night.' And I love that idea that a night could be bright. Or like Thelonious Monk's 'Ugly Beauty.'"

The reflective"Looking Back" highlights Frank's ability to seamlessly jump back and forth from bass line to chords to melody lines, as does his flowing take on tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers' darkly elegant "Beatrice," a deeply felt ballad inspired by his wife and covered by everyone from Joe Henderson and Stan Getz to Brad Mehldau and Robert Glasper. "That one was a challenge in that I didn't think I could actually do a solo version of that," confessed Kohl. "And I just kind of surprised myself by deciding to modulate, so it's in two keys. When you do solo guitar you have to come up with these little interesting sidetracks along the way."

Shifting gears from moody to bright, Frank's "Pacific Journey" triggers feelings of comfort and nostalgia for the composer. "That tune has a super simple melody, which I like," he explained. "It has pedal tones in it, which makes it easy to play on guitar. And it has a bluesy sort of cadence at the end of it, which made me happy. It's just basically about looking at my life. I grew up on the East Coast and I came out here on this Pacific journey. For East Coasters, the West Coast has always had this kind of mystique to it, like it's the promised land. I remember my grandparents moved out there and we used to go visit them, so it was a magical place in my head. And that's what I was thinking of when I wrote it."

Kohl's inventive and highly nuanced take on "Making Whoopee" is both blues-laced and imbued with remarkably smooth voice leading, while his patient rendition of "Idle Moments" (a Duke Pearson composition and title track from Grant Green's 1963 Blue Note album) finds him making judicious use of space in his phrasing. Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, a longtime favorite of Kohl's, is represented here by the bossa "A Felicidade," a tune whose Portuguese title translates to "Happiness" though thematically it deals with impermanence and loss. Frank's gentle rendition is suitably introspective.

The guitarist's minor key lament, "I Know l'Il See You Again," a tune he previously recorded in a quartet setting on his first album as a leader 42 years ago, again finds him slipping seamlessly in and out of chords, single note lines and bass lines. "This is a dark tune," he explained. "It's about a woman. I had a girlfriend, I really liked her and it didn't work out. So I wrote this song in the mid '70s."

Kohl next delivers a radiant reading of "Memories of Tomorrow," the most poignant, affecting and memorable passage from Keith Jarrett's landmark Köln Concert live recording from 1975. "That's a Berklee tune,' he recalled. "I remember when it first came out, everybody got a lead sheet on it and would be playing that song. I just came upon it accidentally when I was thinking about tunes for this album, and it really struck me. And I modulated it, which was really challenging. It goes from A minor to F minor. But I just love the way the tune moves, and it worked out really well on the guitar."

Frank's Pass-ian command of his instrument comes to the fore on his virtuosic rendition of the oft-covered Jule Styne standard, "Time After Time." As he explained, "That tune just lays really nicely on the guitar. And when I play it, I feel kind of free to take chances with it."

He introduces an allusion of swing on his solo interpretation of John Coltrane's "Moment's Notice," readily acknowledging that tackling that Trane classic was a daunting task. "That was the hardest tune," he said. "But as daunting as that may be, the melody is so simple that it kind of frees you up to be moving through all these chords." And he does so with impunity, flowing freely through the changes.

The collection closes with a graceful, solemn reading of the Victor Young ballad, "When I Fall In Love," which again has him balancing chops with taste, sensitivity and zen-like patience.

Throughout Pacific Kohl caresses these deeply ingrained melodies with uncommon eloquence and a kind of expressive abandon. "I think of what I do with these songs as color and texture," he said. "The melody is the song. And if you have good possession of the melody, you can take the listener to a place they kind of know they're going to, but then slap them with something more controversial, whether it's reharmonization, an unexpected modulation or something very dissonant. And I love those kind of little surprises along the way."

There are unlimited surprises to be had on Kohl's 'Pacific.' It's a musical journey that will reward listeners and have aspiring guitarists going back to the woodshed. But chops aside, it's the melodies that prevail.

Liner Notes copyright © 2024 Bill Milkowski.

Pacific can be purchased here.

Bill Milkowski Contact Bill Milkowski at All About Jazz.
Bill Milkowski is the author of "Jaco: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Jaco Pastorius"

Track Listing

Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You; With Tears of Joy; Looking Back; Beatrice; Pacific Journey; Making Whoopee; Idle Moments; A Felicidade; I Know I'll See You Again; Memories of Tomorrow; Time After Time; Moment's Notice; When I Fall in Love.


Album information

Title: Pacific | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: OA2 Records



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