As much as I enjoy the experimentalism of modern jazz artists and the inventive directions they take as they expand the territory, there is something supremely refreshing about a new release that transports me decades back to when my listening time was dominated by albums with names like Art Blakey, Kenny Dorham, and Donald Byrd. That’s a lot of the Jazz I grew up on, the Jazz that marks a definitive starting point for my original excursion into the genre.
Above the Clouds by the Terry Bartolotta Group recaptures much of the excitement of the bop era of the sixties. It has the vibrancy of the present and the nostalgia of the past. It’s the kind of album that can take a person back.
Your album personnel: Terry Bartolotta (guitar), Nick Sednew (trumpet), Alex Beltran (tenor sax), Nathan Kawaller (bass), and Lucas Gillan (drums).
Bartolotta typically leads out on guitar, as he does on the opening track, but it really deserves mentioning that it’s the bass and drums combo of Kawaller and Gillan that establish this album’s presence. Right from go, they set a brisk pace that stamps its mark upon this music, a mark that’s felt even when the tempo slows down later into ballad territory. But when it comes to tempo on a Hard Bop performance, it’s not just about speed… just as essential is offering up a cheerful attitude, even when the rhythm takes a turn for the serious. Hard Bop has a potent mix of speed and celebration, a joyfulness that often leaves in a cloud of dust. On the first two album tracks, the title-track and then “Through the Square,” that’s what the Kawaller-Gillan duo create.
As I mentioned before, Bartolotta leads out on most tunes. His guitar offers warm notes, bent like rays of refracted sunlight. He shines both as soloist and as an accompanist, and specifically, it’s his transitions between those two roles that elicits some of the best moments of the album. Too often, a musician who switches between lead and support roles offers up their parts as two unrelated approaches. On guitar, Bartolotta makes that transition without finding in necessary to make a wholesale change in wardrobe. There’s a cohesion to the facets of Bartolotta’s expressiveness, and it’s an achievement that allows a musician to create a sound that’s greater than the sum of its individual notes.
The opening two tracks are scorchers. It isn’t until the third track, “Mood Piece,” that brings the first sign of a slower way of life. Music swirls like wisps of smoke in a room with low ceilings, and at times, feels a bit insubstantial. It isn’t until later on, when they take another shot at the ballad form with “Song For Amelia” that the quintet highlights their strengths at a slower gait. There’s a greater confidence here in their expressions of delicacy. Whereas on “Mood Piece,” they gave the impression of fearing they’d shatter the composition if they played with too much force, on “Song For Amelia,” they’re in better form, providing a weightiness to a smokey tune… a heavy impact at slow speeds.
The center of the album assumes a more casual pace than the album bookends. It provides some decent breathing room for Sednew and Beltran to stretch out on trumpet and sax. When playing side-by-side, their individual approaches offer the most rewards in the nuanced differences between the two. But they contribute the strongest parts when the song is a race and they take turns handing the baton off to one another. There is something so damn satisfying about the transition from brass to woodwind and back again when the musicians don’t miss a beat, ripping off notes that finish each others sentences. Thrilling, really.
The album ends with “Aerial View of a City,” what may be the strongest track on the album. There is something intriguingly modern in the way guitar washes across the surface of the music as trumpet and sax play over the top. It’s a very cool form of accompaniment, and it ushers Bartolotta into a more conventional solo. This song also marks a return to the fierce gallop and heat of the opening tracks. Just a great way to finish things off.
Something here for everyone to like, but seeing as I often tend to feature the kind of music that strays out toward Jazz’s fringes, Above the Clouds is definitely one I recommend that the old-school Jazz fans scoop up. These are young Jazz artists who clearly embrace a classic Jazz sound and use their voice to keep it going in the present day.
The album is Self-Produced.
Jazz from the Chicago scene.
Available at Bandcamp, where you can stream four of the album songs, as well as purchase the album in a number of file formats.