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Guitars Galore: Major Vistas, Joe Policastro Trio, Dan Arcamone, Charlie Ballantine, Sound Underground, & Kay-Ta Matsuno

Mark Sullivan By

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A brief overview of several notable 2016 contemporary jazz releases featuring guitarists.

Major Vistas
Minor Anthems
Self Produced
2016

A fresh approach to the jazz trio, and the debut release from Madison, Wisconsin's Major Vistas. Keyboardist Mike Weiser says he thinks of it as a modern "organ" trio, but he tends to use Fender Rhodes sounds more than Hammond low tones for the bass. The band cites guitarists John Scofield and Pat Metheny as influences (along with Medeski, Martin & Wood and The Bad Plus), but I'm more strongly reminded of John Abercrombie's organ trios. Guitarist Chris Bucheit (who shares composition credits with Weiser) has a contemporary jazz guitar sound, but not as overdriven as Scofield tends to be. Drummer Geoff Brady completes the group.

Joe Policastro Trio
Pop
JeruJazz Records
2016

The "Pops" in the title refers both to the Chicago club Pops For Champagne where this trio performs three nights a week, and to the "pop" music of artists from the 1960-90s that the group frequently covers. The trio is led by bassist Joe Policastro, with guitarist Dave Miller and drummer Mikel Avery. Guest guitarists Andy Brown and Andy Pratt often perform with the trio. This is an actual working band—a rarity these days—so Policastro took the opportunity to incorporate different musical styles (including rock, funk, and soul) within a jazz trio framework. This album is completely devoted to the band's pop covers, and it's a diverse selection. Opening with the modern standard "Wives and Lovers" by Bacharach/David (cast in 6/4 with a funk feel), they move on to Neil Young's "Harvest Moon" (with the melody in the bass), and from there anything goes. Stevie Wonder, the Pixies, Bee Gees, Prince, Billy Paul, Pink Floyd, Tom Waits, and The Cars all become jazz here. It's not unusual for contemporary jazz albums to include a pop cover or two—e.g. The Bad Plus and pianist Brad Mehldau—but these versions are notable for their generally straightforward arrangements. These aren't novelties, they're just pop tunes played as jazz, as jazz musicians have always done.

Dan Arcamone
In Colors
Arced Records
2016

Connecticut-based guitarist Dan Arcamone leads a quintet through a cracking set of jazz-rock originals. He describes it as a "modern jazz record with influences of drum and bass and rock," and it definitely tends to have a rock edge, with Arcamone favoring an overdriven guitar tone and employing a guitar synthesizer on a few tracks. Saxophonist Mark Small gets plenty of space as well, e.g. taking the first solo on the second track "Filament." Drummer Thierry Arpino gets a couple of solo spots, while electric pianist Jen Allen seems limited to the stalwart accompanist role, until finally getting solo space on "Rust" (which also gives bassist Rich Zurkowski a chance to shine) and "Yellow And Grey." The whole project has a classic fusion vibe to it—probably aided by that electric piano sound throughout—reminiscent of Eleventh House-era Larry Coryell.

Charlie Ballantine
Providence
Self Produced
2016

Indianapolis-based guitarist Charlie Ballantine leads his working quintet through a diverse set of six originals and three unique covers, none of them jazz standards. Ballantine credits guitarists Bill Frisell and John Scofield as major influences, but shows off his influences outside of jazz with the funk of opener "Old Hammer" and the distorted blues-rocker "Roads," and plays a gentle fingerstyle arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Gentle Lana Clare" (in a trio with bass and drums). The other covers are Leonard Cohen's modern anthem "Hallelujah" and Tom Waits' "Temptation." He is ably assisted by saxophonist Amanda Gardier, organist Joshua Espinoza, bassist Conner Green and drummer Josh Roberts, all former classmates at Indiana University.

Sound Underground
Quiet Spaces
Self Produced
2016

Sound Underground is a trio with unusual instrumentation: saxophonist David Leon, trumpeter Alec Aldred and guitarist Johan Udall. The members come from all over the United States, but formed the group in 2013 while living together in Miami, giving them a close personal connection as well as a musical one. It's an intimate sound—complete with breath sounds, key and valve clicks, and guitar string noises—made more immediate by recording live and without isolation. Guitarist Udall contributes the lion's share of the compositions—although all three members are represented—and serves as the harmonic glue. He's so foundational that he never takes a conventional guitar solo: the closest he comes is the solo fingerstyle section in "Trio Tune for Tal" (that would be guitar legend Tal Farlow, I'm guessing). The group takes advantage of the recording studio to thicken the sound with overdubbing on "A Moment Fixed In Amber" and "Now I Know;" the bit of outside playing during "Wanderer's Rondo" gives another moment of contrast.

Kay-Ta Matsuno
Arrival
LCR Music
2016

Guitarist Kay-Ta Matsuno was born in Osaka, Japan, and moved to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music. He has since started a career as a session guitarist in Los Angeles. His debut album is a pretty slick affair, mostly groove-funk oriented: stylistically nothing remarkable. But it's still noteworthy, due to Matsuno's monster chops. We're talking Mike Stern-level technique, outstanding in any company. The rhythm section is anchored by Darryl Williams (Bass) and Steven J. Robinson (Drums); special guests include saxophonist Jackiem Joyner, trumpeter Ilya Serov. , and pianist Jonathan Fritzen. There's an unexpected cover of "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses, but Matsuno saves the biggest surprise for last. He plays the beautiful "Jacaranda" fingerstyle on acoustic guitar, joined only by violinist Leah Zegar (who also plays with Matsuno in the group Quattrosound). It's a lovely way to end the album, as well a demonstration of the kind of range this guitarist is capable of.

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