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Greg Skaff: Polaris

C. Andrew Hovan By

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Greg Skaff: Polaris
The pandemic year of 2020 brought with it very little in terms of artistic endeavors, thanks to lockdowns and stay home orders. Yet even under extreme conditions, guitarist Greg Skaff managed to commit to tape some genuinely sublime music that is sure to be remembered as one of 2021'a most memorable releases. Of course, Skaff has been at the forefront of modern jazz guitar since his first big break in the '80s working with the legendary Stanley Turrentine.

Not always getting the press garnered by peers such as Peter Bernstein or Russell Malone, Skaff nonetheless has been part of a healthy New York scene over the past several decades working with an iconic list of employers such as Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Watson, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Mike LeDonne. His own recordings cover a good deal of ground, often putting him in the popular organ combo format. His great run with the Zoho label began in 2004 and culminated with 2017's Soulmation

For Polaris, Skaff was looking to stretch out in a format he had not previously used—the standard trio of just guitar, bass, and drums. Without another chording instrument, Skaff carries the job of providing both the melody and supporting chordal structures. If that was not a heady enough prospect, he wanted to bring into the fold jazz luminaries Ron Carter and Albert "Tootie" Heath. The first sessions came together in the summer of 2019, however the second date almost didn't happen, coming in March of 2020 just as New York City entered lockdown.

The opening "Old Devil Moon" leaves no doubt that a simpatico relationship was established from the first note. Skaff had been working steady gigs with Carter's big band, but Heath and Carter have had few chances to get together over the years. Carter's huge tone fills in the spaces between Skaff's melody lines and Heath's ride cymbal propels the forward-moving momentum. Trading fours with the drummer, crisp snare drum accents echo naturally within the studio space, the recorded sound being another finely-carved facet of this jewel.

Heath drives the Ellington chestnut "Angelica" with his hybrid "Nawlins" groove. Skaff puts melody at a premium as he weaves together his filigreed phrases. The other number from the Ellington cannon, "Lady of the Lavender Mist" showcases the guitarist's lush chordal approach. Heath lightly feathers the beat with his eloquent brushwork. In a similar vein, "Yesterdays" opens with Skaff's burnished chordal work before giving way to Carter's extended statement.

Tipping his hat to the organ format he's favored for some time, Skaff offers up Larry Young's "Paris Eyes. The tune sparkles in this setting, complete with some tasty drum fills from Heath. The result of the drummer being late for the second session led to a fortuitous situation where Carter and Skaff tackled the bassist's "Little Waltz," first as a duo and then later again with Heath after he had arrived. Being in the moment, Skaff crafts unique statements in both versions, Carter's upward glissando closing the latter version on a sagacious note.

The significance of Skaff's original "Mr. R.C." will be immediately apparent to those in the know. Its open structure allows the guitarist to stretch out at a brisk tempo. The leader's title track also brings with it superb guitar lines, but its structure is based on a pedal tone that then breaks free during the turnaround. Skaff has stated he gathered bits and pieces of inspiration for this one from the late guitarist Vic Juris.

A beautiful parting statement, "Ill Wind," finds Skaff on his own. Considering what was yet to come in terms of the pandemic, the title seemed apropos for sure, but it also seems to come across with an optimistic tone that permeates the entire session.

Track Listing

Old Devil Moon; Angelica; Little Waltz (duo); Paris Eyes; Yesterdays; Mr. R.C.; Lady of the Lavender Mist; Polaris; Little Waltz (trio); Caminando; Ill Wind.

Personnel

Greg Skaff: guitar; Ron Carter: bass; Albert "Tootie" Heath: drums.

Album information

Title: Polaris | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: SMK Jazz

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