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Tom Guarna: Tom Guarna: Rush

John Kelman By

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With his five recordings on Steeplechase since 2005's Get Together, it's hard not to think of him as a dyed-in-the-wool mainstreamer, but Tom Guarna's extracurricular activities tell a completely different story. He may love big fat hollowbody guitars and the Great American Songbook, but Guarna's work with George Colligan on Realization (Sirocco, 2005) and the stylistically broader Runaway (Sunnyside, 2008) demonstrate a purview reaching farther afield than his admittedly fine straight-ahead recordings as a leader.

Even more revealing is Guarna's work with Lenny White on Anomaly (Abstract Logix, 2010)—taken even further in performance with the fusion drummer at the 2010 New Universe Music Festival in Raleigh, NC, where the guitarist was joined by fellow six-stringer Jimmy Herring to create some real fireworks, documented on Abstract Logix's The New Universe Music Festival 2010: Abstract Logix Live (2011), a 14-track "best of the festival" release. Guarna is clearly comfortable in just about any context, but it's taken the guitarist nearly a decade of recording as a leader to step away from the shackles of the mainstream and release a record like Rush: clearly steeped in the tradition that imbues his solo discography to date, but also an unequivocally modern record that focuses on both his compositional acumen and a broader textural palette than ever before.

Not that Rush is a fusion record, per se; instead, it's simply an electro-centric set easily fitting into the same space occupied by recent recordings from other guitarists like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Adam Rogers, Jonathan Kreisberg, Mike Moreno and Lage Lund. Call it "modern mainstream" if you must; Rush is a quintet recording that, with stellar contributions from an A-list group of New Yorkers, possesses some of the fire and energy of fusion, but without the pedal-to-the-metal, testosterone-filled overt virtuosity that can sometimes weigh lesser recordings down.

That doesn't mean Guarna lacks chops, but there's an intrinsic taste and respect for form that makes his extended solo on the closing "High Plains" an impressive display that avoids any trappings of excess. The same can be said for pianist Danny Grissett and saxophonist Joel Frahm who, along with bassist Orlando le Fleming and drummer Johnathan Blake, make for a group of musicians' musicians, if ever there was one.

The opening title track is a blend of arpeggiated chords—first from Guarna, but then passed to Grissett on Fender Rhodes, as the guitarist doubles a labyrinthine melody with Frahm's soprano before delivering the set's opening solo, a marriage of effortless intervallic leaps and pointillist linearity, the guitarist possessed of a warm but ever-so-slightly gritty tone and a gentle cloud of reverb to give it breadth. Grissett, too, navigates Guarna's ascending four-chord, 12/8 pattern with ease, supported by the firm yet pliant Le Fleming and Blake.

Rush tends to simmer rather than boil, whether it's on the brighter-paced "Beringia" or balladic "Dreamland," where Guarna's solo demonstrates all the chops he needs to position him with the better-knowns, while Frahm's enviable altissimo is just one more reason to question his similar lack of popular acclaim. The closest the quintet comes to nuclear fire is on the modal, post-John Coltrane "Shambleau," Grissett's McCoy Tyner-esque block chords and Blake's Elvin Jonesian triplet-over-four pulse bolstering a lengthy head, moving from the knottily idiosyncratic to stop/start-supported, light-speed thematic, before opening up into the most flat-out swinging solo segment of the set, Guarna's gently overdriven and lightly delayed tone ideal for a lengthy excursion that moves from motivic triads to more dizzying displays of high-speed imagination.

Part of Guarna's lack of profile has been the less-than-marketing-friendly label with which he's been associated until now. Hopefully with the American-based Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records label, he'll get the extra push he needs to find his way to a larger audience. On the basis of Rush—a collection of heady tunes that nevertheless steers clear of gravitas, and played by a top-notch group of effortlessly versatile players—it's about time that the secret already known amongst musicians finally becomes public knowledge.

Track Listing: Rush; Beringia; Dreamland; Shambleau; Elegy for Etan (Dedicated to Etan Patz); Movement and Repose; Forgiveness; High Plains.

Personnel: Tom Guarna: guitar; Joel Frahm: soprano and tenor saxophones; Danny Grissett: piano, Fender Rhodes; Orlando Fleming: bass; Johnathan Blake: drums.

Title: Tom Guarna: Rush | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records

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