My motto: If you’re not pushing ahead, you’re falling behind. You see it everywhere you look these days: retro clothing styles, overdone movie and TV concepts, retread political candidates... there’s just no originality anymore. And nowhere is this more true than in music, where a seemingly endless parade of new acts bubble to the surface with little more than a handful of Stevie Wonder covers and a Fender Rhodes.
That’s why The Cosmic Hand, the first album from the New York-based quintet Avatar, is so refreshing. This group could so easily have decided to be just another instrumental funk band, pumping out tired bass themes and slightly overdriven guitar solos for the masses of rumpled English majors. But they’ve taken the high ground, mixing their jazz-infused sound with Latin beats, downtown soul, pure funk, and a little bit of rock to create a unique sound that’s part Galactic, part Ulu, part James Brown, and all “hip-hop funk-jazz.”
They kick start the record with “Marsala,” a song that, like many Avatar compositions, focuses on a tight horn theme and Matt Williams’ bass work. It offers a nice springboard for their improvisations, as does the next track, “Bharum Scarum,” which is essentially the same tune in a different key. They slow it down on “Flyin’ Low” and “Meskerim,” passing the lead around on both tracks, but it’s the title track that really stands out. A sort of double-time Latin swing, if there is such a thing, “The Cosmic Hand” shifts back and forth between mayhem and decorum on Seth Goldberg’s hi-hat, all the while carrying a variety of screaming off beat solos toward the brink of collapse. Of the seven tracks, this one best shows the group’s range and imagination.
An up-tempo program on The Cosmic Hand works because the driving horns, tight guitar chords, and surprisingly mature solo lines push the listener forward and keep the disc from becoming boring or repetitive. Matt Dickey lays down track after track of impressive guitar work, ranging from in-the-pocket comps to front-and-center solos, such as his toe-tapping work midway through “Scarum.” Marshall Gilkes and Vince Veloso are equally effective on horns.
The Cosmic Hand is a well done disc all around, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from this group in the future. They’re not quite there yet, though their inexperience doesn’t mar this fine outing. I’m interested to see what a few years in the New York trenches will do for their sound. Recommended.
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