Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Triptych 3, Shulgin's Songbook: Exceeding Genre Limitations

Relative to jazz in general, the genre "smooth jazz" often entails less complexity and more accessibility. However, Alexander Shulgin - the famous Russian composer and former member of the band "The Cruise" - succeeds in creating an album that is both complex, yet accessible, and thus pleases both musicians and non-musicians alike. With an all-star line-up that includes, John Patitucci, Billy Cobham, and Bob Mintzer, Part 3 of Shulgin's songbook "Triptych" has plenty to offer.

One of the album's strength's is Shulgin's willingness to experiment with different instrumentations, which keeps the album feeling fresh throughout. On the tune "Winter," Gregoire Maret is featured on harmonica, and it creates a totally different color than what the listener is used to up until that point. In addition, sax player Snake Davis often plays the flute instead of sax, and this also contributes to making the album diverse in terms of color and sound.

The use of the stand-up bass also adds a welcomed new sound to the album. On "Summer", John Patitucci plays stand-up, and it is a nice change from the electric bass (even though Janek Gwizdala is fantastic as well). Naturally, Shulgin gives Patitucci room to solo, and as usual, Patitucci plays in a way that is appropriate for the song (the sign of a talented studio musician). Meanwhile, drummer Gary Husband provides subtle and tasty snare work in the beginning, and then appropriately moves to brushes for Patitucci's solo.

Another admirable aspect of this album is that Shulgin gives his musicians room to really show off their abilities. Towards the end of "Winter", Maret displays his chops on the chromatic harmonica. It's tough to name the great harmonica players that are around today. For me, Stevie Wonder and Howard Levy (former member of Bela Fleck & The Flecktones) are the first two that come to mind. However, after hearing Maret on this track, I would certainly add his name to that list, for his solo is nothing short of virtuosic. On "Brazilian Summer", bassist Janek Gwizdala plays a blazing solo while singing along to his improvised melody (ala bassist Richard Bona).

A Look At "Triptych, Part 3: Alexander Shulgin's Songbook"

On the track "Airplane", Bob Mintzer is featured on saxophone. The head is quite simple, but his solo is what makes the tune. He glides over the changes with effortless ease and Shulgin gives him room to show off those skills that made him famous in groups like The Yellowjackets, and The Word of Mouth Big Band (led by the late, great Jaco Pastorious). At times, with certain songs that feature some of jazz's best, I feel that Alexander Shulgin was simply saying "Hey, look who I got to play on my album!" Regardless, that's perfectly fine with me.

Though the album definitely has the sound and often the feel of smooth jazz, it has the musicianship of classical music or bebop. Alexander Shulgin is a composer that clearly knew what he was doing when he was putting together a band. Even the lesser-known musicians are still excellent players and they add a lot to the album. For instance, on the infectious "Catch" (appropriately titled), Richard Niles provides great guitar work and a tasty solo, utilizing a clean jazz tone.

Although part 3 of "Triptych" has a lot going for it, it's the musicians that really carry the load more than Shulgin himself. Though several of the compositions are quite interesting and complex, it's the players that really bring them to life. In the end, the genre "smooth jazz" still might be the best classification for Part 3 of "Triptych", for the overall sound is quite typical of smooth jazz. However, because it is played at the highest level, by some of the greatest musicians in the world, it stretches the genre beyond its usual limitations.

Track Listing 1. Osen' (Autumn) 2. Lovi (Catch) 3. Samolet (Airplane) 4. Nebesa (Heavens) 5. Zima (Winter) 6. Noch' Nezhna (Night is Tender) 7. Polyot na Vozdushnom Share (Balloon Flight) 8. Nebo nad Piterom (Sky over St.Petersburg) 9. Riga-Moskva 10. Leto (Summer) 11. Pevitsa (Singer) 12. Posmotri vokrug sebya (Look around) 13. Vesna (Spring) 14. Brazil'skoe Leto (Brazilian Summer)

Performers John Patitucci: double bass Bob James: keyboards Billy Cobham: drums Bob Mintzer: sax Richard Niles: guitar Gregoire Maret: harmonica Janek Gwizdala: electric bass Kim Chandler: backing vocal Richard Cottle: keyboards Snake Davis: sax & flute Gary Husband: drums

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