As with the auspicious debut of The Last Farewell , Shapes continue to explore a breadth of styles on their sophomore effort, The Big Picture , still retaining a distinctive complexion that lends cohesiveness to the entire proceeding. That the group, led by Roger Burn, has shifted from being a six-person collective to a one-man operation with a large group of guest contributors makes this sense of focus all the more remarkable. "Cast of Thousands'" affairs often contain strong individual performances but lack the unity and chemistry of a more consistent lineup. On the other hand, with a constant revolving-door policy, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have managed to infuse Steely Dan with a distinctive sound, and so keyboardist/vibraphonist Burn has succeeded in creating a work that, despite its many flavours, clearly retains a specificity of purpose.
By dividing the release into two discs, the first containing essentially more groove-oriented material, the second more mainstream stuff, Burn maintains a multifaceted musical perspective that makes each disc a self-contained unit and part of a larger whole. Still, within these two larger definitions lie even further subdivisions, demonstrating Burn's clearly voracious musical appetite. On disc one, the breezy contemporary flavour of "Arc of Twilight'" contrasts with the New Orleans funk of "Lobster'" and the second line blues of "Measure Once,'" while the 12/8 shuffle groove of John Coltrane's "Naima'" appears at odds with the overtly Latino vibe of the title track and the bossa-inflected "Sotto Voce.'" Despite its clearly accessible nature, the disc has a substance and profundity that escapes the risk of a smooth jazz classification in the same way that recent Yellowjackets recordings have avoided similar comparisons through a more organic disposition that paradoxically masks complexity in a deceptively approachable sound.
That there should be some comparison to Yellowjackets will come as no surprise, with Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip in the producer's chair for a second time. Haslip's instincts bring the most out of Burn's engaging arrangements, featuring substantive soloing from the likes of harmonica player Tollak Ollestad and reedman Andy Suzuki (both holdovers from The Last Farewell), as well as guitarists Robben Ford, Matthew Von Doran, and Mike Higgins. Burn concentrates more on vibes this time around, creating a more lightweight complexion.
And while the focus of disc two is on the mainstream, as with the swinging reading of "Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise,'" Burn isn't afraid to shake things up, as he does with the half-time funk of "Love for Sale.'" Russell Ferrante, another Yellowjackets member who adds a variety of keyboards to six tracks on the album, contributes the episodic 6/8 piece "Automat,'" which, at nearly ten minutes, forms the centrepiece of disc two.
That Shapes are now more of a studio concoction than a live performing vehicle doesn't detract from Burn's clear musical vision. Regardless of the context, he melds approachable rhythms and pleasing melodies with enduring soloists, making The Big Picture both an evolution and an improvement over Shapes' first release.
CD1: Arc of Twilight, Naima, The Big Picture, Gabriela, Eat the Heat, Lobster, Measure Once, Sotto Voce.
CD2: Softly As in a Morning Sunrise, Love for Sale, In the Outdoors, I Didn't Know What Time It Was,
Automat, I Still Remember, What Now?
Tollak Ollestad--chromatic harmonica, keys, background vocals; roger Burn--keys, vibraphone; Larry Steen, Dean Taba--bass, Jimmy Haslip; various others...
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