South African saxophonist Chris Engel has been a ubiquitous figure on the Irish jazz/improvised scene since arriving in Dublin in 2011. Whether in Chris Guilfoyle
's modernist Umbra, Cote Calmet
's Afro-Peruvian-inspired Phisqa, Italian guitarist Julien Colarossi
's quartet or the Weather Report
tribute band, Plaza Real, Engel's commitment is total, his fierce technique matched by a fearless improvisatory spirit. Engel has also embraced the world of electronica, notably in the duo Cafolla-Engel, whose DJ/improvised saxophone sets whip up the night owls. Engel, for sure, is a man for all seasons.
Perhaps Engel's commitments to multiple groups have stalled the trajectory of his own projects. Then again, without all these cumulative experiences, The Return of The Prodigal Son,
Engel's debut as leader, might not be half the album it is. And it's a doozya suite-like, modern jazz odyssey of dramatically unfolding dynamics. Surrounded by strong musical personalities in Matthew Jacobson
on drums, Shane O'Donovan on electronics and Darragh O'Kelly on keyboards, Engel harnesses the individual voices to his singular musical concept with unwavering focus and conviction.
Rhythmically vital, the music spans an arc between densely layered, interweaving lines, where saxophone, electronics and keyboards merge forcefully, and atmospheric, Vangelis-esque soundscapes of beautiful understatement. Engel, for his part, toggles between acoustic and electronically-filtered playing, At times, it is a challenge to discern who is playing what exactly, particularly on album opener "The Introduction" where ensemble play of industrial intensity gives way to a plateau of mellifluous, groove-based ambiance. But the effect, notwithstanding, is powerfully alluring.
Engle stretches out on the rhythmically complex "Us Five"with Jacobson in blistering formbut in the main solos are short, with the prevailing aesthetic more about group synergy. Influences, while not immediately apparent, are not entirely disguised either; with their synth-washed atmospherics, "Beyond Reasoning" and "Bucket List" echo the dreamy, ambient end of Brad Mehldau
's Mehliana: Taming The Dragon
(Nonesuch Records, 2014), eventually morphing into edgier territory, steered by Engel's keening alto and O'Kelly's probing keys.
Like Engel, O'Kelly and O'Donovanon drums also play in the aforementioned Plaza Real, an influence that filters through unabashedly on "Alice in Wonderland," a very 21st-century take on Weather Report's "everybody solos and nobody solos" modus operandi. The dancing rhythms and ritual chants of the title track seem to harken to Engel's South African roots, though it is O'Kelly's lithe solo and Engel's barrelling alto replythat no amount of electronic effects can maskthat steal the show.
Engel's chops are well known, but it is his vision as leader on this visceral debut that commands the attention. Conceptually fresh and brilliantly executed, Return Of The Prodigal Son
may well mark a significant turning point in Engel's career.
The Introduction; Us 5; Enlight; Beyond Reasoning; Bucket List; Alice in Wonderland; The Return Of The Prodigal
Chris Engel: electronics.
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