Jul 1 2014
With a debut, there’s always a danger of doing too much. There’s a natural enthusiasm with the debut, no matter what the artistic medium, to aspire to express all of those creative ideas that have been bubbling up to the very moment the debut becomes official. It’s the kind of thing that can lead to a wildly varying panoply of sounds and imagery, lacking cohesion and a frame of reference.
This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. It can often lead to some pretty dramatic moments, and it’s the kind of thing where even if an artist falls flat on their face, they can get huge marks for the time they went airborne.
On their debut Becoming, The Jonathan Rowden Group maintain their balance, despite taking that prototypical “debut leap.” It’s an album that has some post-bop, some chamber jazz, some avant-garde, and some of that Brian Blade Fellowship nu-jazz, and, strangely enough, Rowden is able to bundle it up in a way so that something approaching cohesion is achieved.
The gem of the album is the three-part “The Long Road Home,” which begins as a solemn hymn, middles with gentle sigh becoming a roar, and ends with the rooftop sound of a rainstorm slowly dwindling away.
Several tracks fit in with the modern jazz approach of incorporating infusions of post-rock and folk, where melodies are thick and heady and often go wandering off with only the occasional postcard as a reminder, and rhythms more likely to stomp and scatter than they are to swing. “Snowing in Paradise” emits a rapid, though comforting pulse while piano and sax trade melodic gestures… some gentle, some as grand pronouncements… interrupted only by the sudden rise of bass from a deep hum to a lovely eye-of-the-storm solo. “27-1” rides the shoulders of a profuse, drawling melody up to furious heights. The indie-pop catchiness of “Autonation” sticks even when the song’s second half sees it carry out a series of rapid costume changes.
Of particular interest is the way in which Rowden wraps these tracks around the three-part “The Long Road Home,” which lies at the heart of the album. By stacking a couple post-bop, nu-jazz tracks at either end of “The Long Road Home,” Rowden creates something of a story arc, with the major conflict of the three-part chamber jazz suite bounded by the introduction and denouement of post-bop tunes. Add to that some small avant-garde infusions, like album opener “Becoming,” in which a slow minimalism slowly morphs into an expansive loud drone, and “Entrance,” where the shroud of silence is as thick as shadows… and now the storyline has some necessary textural ambiguities. Rowden manages to balance debut creative exuberance with some deft album craftsmanship. Nicely done.
One of those albums that thoroughly captures the attention, and then, when released, the album reveals just how much fun it was, too.
Your album personnel: Jonathan Rowden (saxophones, electronics, percussion), Ryan Pryor (piano, fender rhodes, percussion), Chris Hon (bass), and James Yoshizawa (drums, pandeiro, bodhran).
Released on Orenda Records.
Jazz from the L.A. scene.