Without taking away from the fact that guitarist Jim Robitaille is obviously his own man, it is a refreshing change to see someone who has obviously spent a lot of time studying John Abercrombie, who, while certainly a well-known name in modern jazz, regrettably doesn’t seem to have the same kind of popular clout as, say, Pat Metheny or John Scofield. And that’s too bad, because in many ways he is a broader player than both, yet still with a distinctly recognizable voice. But enough about Abercrombie... what Robitaille has done with To Music is release a remarkable album of modern post-bop that puts together some musical compatriots with the also under-recognized saxophonist Dave Liebman, who is, quite simply, on fire on this recording of largely original compositions.
Take “Freedom Waltz.” By exploring a format that is dear to the heart of Abercrombie but putting it in a more modal context, Robitaille delivers a piece that is reverential but more on fire than one might expect. Liebman explores post-Coltrane territory but with his own language that is equally expressionistic, but less abrasive. And Robitaille delivers a solo that combines the Abercrombie reference with a taste of Scofield, circa Live (1977) and Rough House by using a clean, warm tone and harmonic language that comfortably takes things just the slightest bit out to create a delicious sense of tension.
That Robitaille is a fine guitarist is without question, but what distinguishes him further is his writing, which challenges within a strongly swinging context. “Parallels” swings hard, with a set of changes that would leave most guitarists in their wake. A number of Robitaille’s compositions have won numerous compositional awards, and it’s easy to see why. His roots are clear, but he writes clever, heady charts that nevertheless provide a lot of meat for passionate group interplay. Liebman, whether playing tenor on “Parallels” or soprano on “Arthur C,” elevates what would be a fine session into the realm of outstanding.
The rest of the group may not be known, but they deserve to be. Pianist Matt Richard is a strong soloist and even better accompanist, with shades of Richie Beirach tying him to Robitaille’s Abercrombie and early Scofield connections. Bassist Dave Zinno and drummer Chris Poudrier anchor things and generate a sense of intensity without ever overplaying.
A frontrunner for début of the year, but the only question, given that this session was recorded three years ago, is where is Robitaille today? How have his compositional and playing skills evolved? With as strong a set as To Music as a basis, one can only imagine where he is now. And hopefully there will not be as wide a gap between his next recording session and its release, so that we can find out soon enough.
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