The Phoenix is an easy chair album. It isn't just that an easy chair happens to be the ideal place to listen to it; the album itself is comfortable, familiar, modest, timeless. Taking after Wes Montgomery, an influence William Ash acknowledges alongside Barry Harris, the guitarist emphasizes economy instead of fireworks, thoughtful precision and not profligacy. The disc was recorded in a complimentary way that suggests the warm and ambient sound "of a Rock-Ola jukebox playing your favorite 45s," a quality producer Luke Kaven mentions in the liner notes. And so when listening to the eleven tracks on his debut American recording as leader (he has had others in Japan), there is no sense of Ash feeling as though he has anything to prove. He isn't shouting at us to sit up and take notice. He's calmly asking us to sit back and take it easy.
Eight of the tracks are originals penned by the guitarist himself, the bluesy groover "Koba," the refined "Crystal Bird," and the beautiful ballad "Moon Shine" standing out on an album where no song deliberately aims to draw attention to itself. Most of them are built around the basic framework of the traditional blues format: musical if/then propositions followed by a long but straightforward development section and then a relaxed closing summary. Drummer Mark Taylor and bassist Dwayne Burno take infrequent solos. They share the guitarist's equanimity but still achieve a healthy interplay. At one moderately spirited point on the opener, "Bill's Groove," Burno and Ash press against one another as if engaged in the physical exercise of moving from a seated to standing position with only each other's support. While not necessarily groundbreaking, it's subtly different from the usual solo underpinned by comping, and it creates the sensation of gentle rising and falling without a strong emotional tie-in. The slow-burning standard "Bewitched" affords the opportunity to hear the two stringmen working with each other atop the constant dusting of Taylor's brushwork.
Ash delivers a dressed-down version of Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder," bridging the slight gaps between rock, swing, jazz and blues in doing so. His rendition of Charlie Parker's "Constellation" is effortlessly zippy, clocking in below three minutes in the company of six- and seven-minute tunes. But even this rare long-distance sprint occurs at a tempo entirely on Ash's own terms, like a man too coolin the mellow, reserved, confident sense of the wordto become fatigued.
Because of The Phoenix 's lack of lapel-grabbing flamboyance, it's something of a grower, and its most memorable charms only become apparent after the third or fourth spin. Yet despite the album's apparent reluctance to make a lasting impression, it does just that.
Track Listing: 1. Bill's Groove (7:17) 2. Crystal Bird (6:32) 3. Koba (6:56) 4. The Sidewinder (6:20) 5.
Moon Shine (5:52) 6. It (6:26) 7. Constellation (2:43) 8. Bewitched (7:49) 9. Parker's Rhythm (5:44) 10.
All in All (7:51) 11. Celery (8:09)
Personnel: William Ash (guitar), Mark Taylor (bass), Dwayne Burno (drums)