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Gene Ess: Sandbox and Sanctum

Tom Greenland By

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Gene Ess: Sandbox and Sanctum Guitarist Gene Ess' third effort as a leader is a noteworthy departure from his sophomore release (Sunrise Falling, Amp Records 2003) in significant ways: while the earlier work straddled rock and fusion-jazz sensibilities, forefronting groove and melody with looped electronica and digital pastiche, the latest is leaner, cleaner, and full straight-ahead, underscoring the guitarist's impeccable tone and taste. More importantly, it represents Ess, for the first time, in complete artistic control of compositions, arrangements, recording, mixing/mastering, and production—with admirable results.

The quartet, rounded out by Donny McCaslin (tenor and soprano saxophones), Harvie S (bass), and Gene Jackson (drums), explores a programmatic song cycle based on the mythic quest of a hero. Following a brief sampled sound-wash and sparse snare drum chatter, Ess' guitar commences with a note of hesitancy, as if our hero were pondering the magnitude of his epic task. Soon it's down to business as guitar and tenor probe the harmonic contours of "Free 2 Fast with angular abandon. "Ryo, a gentle bossa featuring McCaslin's lyricism and Ess' woody midrange, is followed by "Baptisma Pyros, a bop-tism by fire showcasing a series of spontaneous combustions from guitar, tenor, and bass.

"Ballad for a Swordsman reveals the somber reality of a warrior's life through sensitive classical guitar sonorities and thoughtful, melancholic solos, until the group amps up for "Ask the Guru, a composition with trim unison lines, call-and-response sectioning, and featuring McCaslin's swelling chromatic contours and Ess's refreshingly non-guitaristic melodic conception. "Noh Country, an allusion to the traditional theater of Japan—and perhaps the rootlessness of a heroic wayfarer?—recalls the melodies of Gagaku royal court music, rendered here in pentatonic quintuplets over a loping jazz waltz. "Sun Matsuri (Sun Celebration) is even more adventurous, the rhythm section comping 5/4 time under the tenor's seven-beat phrasing, everyone eventually synching up at the 4/4 outro figure.

The mythical journey dénouements with "Kerama Processional, kicked off by Harvey S's Jaco-esque Latin-calypso vamp, punctuated by stop-and-go phrasing from guitar and soprano as the combo marches off towards the horizon, ambiguously overshadowed by a brief reprise of the opening industrial montage.

Track Listing: Free 2 Fast; Ryo; Baptisma Pyros; Ballad for a Swordsman; Ask the Guru; Noh Country; Sun Matsuri; Kerama Processional.

Personnel: Gene Ess: guitar; Donny McCaslin: tenor and soprano saxophones; Harvie S: bass; Gene Jackson: drums.

Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: SIMP Records | Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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