Guitarist Mark Guest's (Why We're) Happy Together
seems built upon a simple premise: deliver solid, hip playing with a tight ensemble feel and see where it leads. If that is near to Guest's motive, he fully lived up to the creed. The album covers a fair amount of harmonic territory, but always lays down a genuine swing.
Guest's striking original, "This Tune Needs a Title," opens the disc with Guest's joyful and harmonically interesting style. While dipping in and out of the melody, his mostly straight-line soloing slips in just the right amount of harmonic tension before heading home. The track also shows off Guest's wonderful comping chops. Guest is a very hip accompanist who lays down a dynamic chordal fabric.
Switching rhythmic gears, Guest goes after the Mandel/Mercer standard, "Emily," opening it with a drone technique that nods to the great Lenny Breau. Guest grew up in Toronto, Canada listening to and briefly studying with the innovative Breau. But Guest is no mere impersonator; the guitarist has incorporated elements of the Breau sound, but it's his version all the way.
Guest is as creative an arranger as he is a guitarist. Whether adding small, unexpected turns to standards, or completely rearranging whole songs, Guest's creativity seems endless. Instead of just layering jazz inflections over The Turtles' pop classic, "Happy Together," Guest creates a whole new atmosphere and energy. From its brooding guitar/bowed-bass opening to pianist George Mesterhazy's stately solo, the pop tune is not so much forgotten as swallowed up in a new understanding of its harmonic possibilities.
Guest has also chosen wisely in his ensemble partners, with Mesterhazy a wonderfully supportive and inventive pianist. The Guest and Mesterhazy pairing is a musically fluid, easy one. Bassist Ian Bracchitta and drummer Sonny Thornton each add a distinct tone and presence; it's obvious these two have their own developed voices and Guest gives them room to shine.
The CD has much musical territory left to cover. Two beautiful Guest originals are included, as well as a slower rendition of the Sonny Rollins classic, "Tenor Madness." Opening with a soulful bass line, Guest and Mesterhazy roll their way into solos that play off of each other's voicings and licks. The give-and-take on this tune is a joy to hear.
The album concludes with a somber, beautiful "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" The band is in top form on this lament-filled ode, most famously covered by Louis Armstrong. Guest was a Gulf Coast resident until Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home and displaced his family to Asheville, North Carolina.
Guest's playing is reflective, lyric and touches a powerful musical nerve with simple elegance and straight-ahead tones. The entire album displays Guest's soulful understanding of a large musical terrain. All of which makes the CD subtitle, Metamorphous Jazz by Mark Guest, an apt moniker for the ever-evolving musical atmosphere his playing creates.