It took Nate Radley a while to graduate from sideman/band member to leader, but The Big Eyes
(Fresh Sound New Talent, 2012) was an impressive debut that called for a quick follow-up. Happily, Radley seems to be on a roll. Carillon
(Steeplechase, 2013) pitted Radley alongside Ted Poor
, Chris Cheek
and Matt Clohesy
on an eclectic set of atmospherically diverse originals and swinging standards. On Morphoses
the guitarist once again surrounds himself with frequent collaborators Poor, Loren Stillman
and Matt Pavolka
on an even stronger set of originals that grow in stature upon subsequent listenings.
The long improvised lines and shifting dynamics that are Radley's trademark are present, though the music is more heavily influenced by country and rock roots than before, with acoustic and lap steel guitars prominent. It's tempting to draw comparison with Bill Frisell
's country-jazz, particularly during the ruminative mid-section of the lyrical "Glow" and in the dreamy, rumbling atmospherics of "Squirelly." If anything though, Radley's music echoes more closely the blueprint of BAAN's As You Like
(Jazz Eyes 2011), the sole release of the excellent collective of Seamus Blake
, Adam Nussbaum
, Jay Anderson
and Oz Noy
Certainly Pavolka's effortless buoyancy, subtle yet persuasive swing and in-the-pocket grooves, and Poor's steady back beats and rhythmic chatter draw from similar wells of inspiration as Anderson and Nussbaum. Rhythm is key in Radley's playing too, instilling a sense of inevitable momentum in his fluid solos, such as that on the shuffling, mid-tempo cooker "Sunset Stomp," which balances delicate motifs and visceral rushes. Stillman and Radley form an equally intuitive partnership, dancing in unison on the defining melodies and bouncing off each other on their respective solo excursions, notably on the jazz-centric "Dots and Rhythms."
Strummed acoustic guitar, quietly singing lap steel and a simple groove underpin "Travis," a gently paced country rocker that toggles between two quite beautiful melodies; in between, Radley's measured solo evokes the countryblues idiom of Jerry Garcia
. Just as infectious is the upbeat "Forced Fun," colored by unmistakably feel-good rhythms and playfully exuberant guitar and tenor solos. These two tunes snuggle back to back beautifully, and will likely provoke repeat-button syndrome on many a car stereo.
The balladic "Ramble," which begins as a slow waltz, sees heartfelt solos from Pavolka, Stillman and Radley, with the intensity building throughout before finishing on a lovely Hawaiian-esque guitar note. "Long Notes" advances from the understated lyricism of Radley's brushes-and-bass-buoyed solo and Stillman's more urgent response towards greater collective freedom; in the end, tenor and guitar join in unison, like birds returning to nest. "Mechanics" bristles with energy from the off, with Poor's animation driving Radley and Stillman to some of their fieriest playing. The knotty strands gradually unravel, leaving Pavolka's spare, melodic bass thread to shine alone. Morphoses
is arguably Radley's most satisfying release to date. Instantly gratifying tunes sit alongside more patiently sculpted narratives, but, whatever the mood, melody is central. Radley's perfectly weighted blend of jazz and country-rock is both as simple and as sophisticated as such genre-bending implies, and ultimately, highly rewarding.