It is time for the voice of Steve Cardenas to be heard. The guitarist, a sideman for several years and dozens of projects led by a diverse group of musiciansbassists, reedmen, brass players, drummers, vocalistsCardenas has held his own in various sizes of ensembles. But as a leader, so far the guitarist has preferred the company of one or two musicians to accompany him on his musical excursions.
On West of Middle Cardenas shares centre stage with bassist Ben Allison and up and coming percussion colorist, Rudy Royston, two musicians who appear to also thrive in his company. In his groups, Cardenas never seems to miss the pianist. This is because the guitarist takes on that role and makes full use of his fretboard in the same way that a pianist sweeps his hands across the keyboard of his instrument. Sometimes he opens his strings as if using a damper pedal. This is when he plays single notes, richly textured chords mixed up in phrases and longer lines that peel like church bells echoing interminably. At other times he may place a gentle stranglehold on the strings, una corda.
There is something else on this album that seems to set Cardenas apart from other guitarists. He sings on his guitar, much like a vocalist swinging gently and caressing the notes he is singing. This aspect of his music on this album enables him to add a fourth musiciana vocalistwithout ever having to call upon this musician to ever sit in on his music. This ghostly member of the ensembleCardenas himselfchanges the dynamic of the group completely. The group appears more intimate and the lyricism more enunciated. Somehow, with his joyful vocalistic style, Cardenas changes the complexion and character of the music altogether. Now he is a storyteller, weaving a tall tale from finely spun yarn.
On "Roundup" Cardenas is flat and perfunctory, all dry and business-like. With short and clipped notes, interspersed irregularly with browned-out chords of every surprising hue, Cardenas' performance paints a dry picture, almost like that of an accountant making bookkeeping entries. Yet on "West of Middle," a rather curiously archaic name for a tune in such a modern idiom, and on "Blue Streak," "Spindle" and "Drifter," his musical voice sounds like a mezzo-soprano putting a challenging aria to the sword. It makes Cardenas' performanceand this continues throughout this albuma rare treat in the cluttered, clone-like world of guitar players, who almost sound alike.
The guitarist is also a master of understated elegance and grace and, thanks to this vocal, and sometimes speech-like vocalese, the guitarist can also turn garrulous. However, Cardenas is a sublime accompanist as well, giving his bassist and drummer plenty of space to articulate their points of view. There brews, therefore, a bubbling dialogue of master musicians offering rich interpretations of the guitarist's compositions. And this makes West of Middle a unique and memorable album from an artist who ought soon to find himself surrounded by the faithful, eager to hear the stories he tells in his inimitable, vocal, singing style.
Tracks: Burt; Roundup; West of Middle; Blue Streak; Spindle; The Horse You Rode In On; Drifter; RR; Backroad.
Personnel: Steve Cardenas: guitar; Ben Allison: bass; Rudy Royston: drums.
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