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Trombonist and multi-instrumentalist Nick Vayenas unveils a colorful palette of ideas on Synesthesia, his debut as a leader. Vayenas and his band mates chart their own course, albeit one that uses musical maps drawn up by the Herbie Hancock Sextet on such albums as Mwandishi (Warner Bros., 1970) and Sextant (Columbia, 1972), with the resulting path fusing elements of jazz, funk, rock and electronics while bypassing the dated connotations of the fusion label.
The energetic opening track, "Voyager," makes sparing use of synthesizer textures, which may not be to everyone's taste, but give a modern vibe to the proceedings. The loose, abstracted groove shares some similarities with underground UK acts including Cinematic Orchestra and 4 Hero, which operate more in the realm of electronica and hip-hop than jazz. However, when excellent pianist Aaron Parks cuts through the tune's dense electric atmosphere with a shimmering acoustic run, one can hear the unmistakable bop-influenced skills of the musicians involved.
"Circuit Dialog" integrates electronic programming into the fairly complex arrangement, which boasts alternating odd-meter sections as well as a twitchy, mid-song breakdown that wouldn't be entirely out of place on a DJ Shadow record. Similarly, "Assembly Line" has a funky, loping bass line as its centerpiece, slugging along with an elastic sense of time, while "The Essence" lays down a thick beat that would most likely raise the roof in the band's live set.
It's immediately obvious from the get-go that Vayenas and his colleagues are all very capable playerstheir chops sharpened, their improvising instincts fine-tuned and their harmonic knowledge vast. But that impressiveness is tempered sometimes by thin arrangements; the band rambles a bit over the course of several of Synesthesia's tracks without making much of a cohesive, concise emotional statement. At these moments, one wishes the musicians could sound a little less polite and precise, and a little more raw and rugged.
Luckily, "Odeon" helps fulfill that wish as Vayenas and company get into some straight-up acoustic swing, capturing the vibe of the classic 1960s Miles Davis band. Due in no small part to drummer Kendrick Scott's Tony Williams-esque style, the group really gels here, digging in with fire as they push forward with spirited spontaneity without relying on electronics to provide a sense of modernity.
As the weight of experience adds some grit to these players' youthful enthusiasm and virtuosity, Vayenas and company's future endeavors will surely give adventurous music fans something to look forward to.
Voyager; Assembly Line; Synesthesia; Odeon; Along the Way; Circuit Dialog; Staircase; The Essence; Dissolution; Soaring; Gone from Me.