Tenor saxophonist Dan Wilensky possesses a warm, accessible tone on his instrument, and at first glance Group Therapy
seems tailor-made to feature this broad, bluesy sound on ten straightforward compositions. However, less than two minutes into "Reckless Tongue," the album opener, the syrupy head breaks down into a standstill of rests and whole notes before sliding back into the relaxed groove that carries the tune the rest of the way. This brief moment of suspense perfectly encapsulates what makes the disc such an enjoyable listen: Wilensky and his band mates get to the point without much pretension, but inject the proceedings with enough micro-level surprise to keep things interesting.
These kinds of surprises abound on an otherwise concentrated, succinct set. "Exotikiss," a leisurely and lovely samba, lopes its way through the harmonic daring of Wilensky's solo, until he suddenly inserts a quote of "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," bringing it to an unexpected, but welcoming conclusion. Elsewhere, the group pulls on the familiar melody of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" like taffy, drummer Tony Moreno
's martial snare rolls darting in and out, speeding and slowing the tempo to its natural limits. "21st Century Blues" is all lurching stop-time and backbeat bluster, but collapses in its middle section into guitarist David Phelps' minute-of-skronk. And the sultry "Certain Nights" alternates between the dense, Middle Eastern modalities of John Zorn's Masada
and a straight-ahead, swinging B section.
Wilensky is obviously a firm believer in the power of concision; only three of the ten tracks clock in at more than five minutes. The benefit of this approach is that it allows him to showcase a greater variety of his compositions, as well as to highlight the focused cohesion of the quartet's members. Unfortunately, it also means that sometimes, just when things are heating up, the band pulls back in, restates the theme, and moves on to the next piece. On the band's reimagining of "Downtown," for instance, both Wilensky and Moreno attack with fiery vigor during their respective solos, and seem to call for some traded bars or extended interaction. Just as suddenly, however, the band cools down and continues quickly on to the wispy, legato album closer.
Communicating clearly and leaving a few notes un-played is certainly preferable to the opposite. The saxophonist/leader has spent several years working in commercials, television and films, and the self-editing needed in those fields is a strength he brings to the oftentimes prolix world of jazz. That said, there is a naturalism to this set of music that arises out of the combination of talented improvisers and pointed leadership. It is a mature, generous music, that manages to sound both spontaneous and slightly lived-in, Wilensky's welcoming, burnished tone a tethered center throughout the madcap romp of his compositions. That is a veteran's feat.