Raphael McGregor Quintet – “Fretless”


Raphael McGregor - "Fretless"One of the more intriguing under-the-radar recordings discovered during my weekly sweep of the new arrivals lists comes courtesy of guitarist Raphael McGregor and his debut recording Fretless.

It’s not easy incorporating a lap steel guitar into a jazz session.  I’ve documented a handful of attempts on this site, and most of them either fall under the Nordic Jazz subgenre… an approach that allows plenty of space for a lap steel (or pedal steel) to slot its warped notes in between the beats.  For instance, Mónókróm by guitarist Andrés Þór, Einar Scheving‘s Land Mins Fodur, and Mathias Eick‘s The Door.

There was also Ellery Eskelin‘s Mirage, an avant-garde recording masked as a love song, from an artist whose innovative approach doesn’t seem out of line for incorporating unconventional instruments into the mix.  Other notable recordings surround the Americana Jazz of Bill Frisell, the nu-jazz of Brian Blade, and the indie-jazz sound of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey… all of them musicians who have gone a long way to establishing their particular individualistic sounds.

So, I find it interesting to stumble upon the debut of Raphael McGregor, an artist who is still, relatively, at the outset of his creative development, and who sets off on that path with lap steel guitar as his method of putting voice to all of the ideas and dreams and experiences bouncing around inside an artist’s head.

Your album personnel:  Raphael McGregor (lap steel guitar), Oran Etkin (alto sax, clarinet), Nick Russo (guitar), Jason Sypher (bass), and Vinnie Sperrazza (drums).

McGregor is clearly searching here.  The album varies from song to song in terms of how the lap steel is presented.

The interludes of “Cornflower,” “Alice,” and “Lapocalypse” recall the eerie beauty of Bill Frisell’s Americana Jazz sound.  A peaceful ambling cadence, notes refracted like a setting sun through an evening haze, and a glimpse of the darkness about to descend… a prowling nature and a haunting beauty.  But it’s not just Frisell’s serene personality this music bumps up against.  “Staircase” is a country-fied version of the jazz-rock hyperfusion of the 70s.  Etkin has a nifty part on alto sax right after some electric guitar burn.

Some of the other tracks take more to a roadhouse display of unrestrained ferocity.  On “TVM,” Russo unleashes a high voltage attack on guitar, straining the balance of the jazz-rock blend way to side of the latter element, but his contribution is sandwiched between statements of melody offered with a dance floor sway.

There’s also the strangely amorphous “Southern Border,” which hints at the eerie Tuscon-based music of Howe Gelb and Giant Steps, but then goes through two unlikely transformations… first launching into a Klezmer influenced section, led by Etikin’s clarinet, and then sliding seamlessly into a catchy post-jazz cadence, with Sypher’s bass steering the quintet into territory with scenery that looks a lot less like that of Tuscon desert and more akin to that of Chicago’s Tortoise… before ending back with a brief return to the eerie alt-country of the Southwest.  It goes a long way to illustrating how McGregor is experimenting with his instrument, in a genre that doesn’t come with a lot of rules of engagement for lap steel guitar.  These are intriguing glimpses of what may come to be if McGregor keeps up his search.

What has to be the most promising of the tracks is the one which comes closest to a proper jazz tune.  “Orangerie,” is a slowly swaying ballad, with Etkin’s clarinet flickering like candlelight and Sperrazza’s brush work creating an environment in which lap steel’s strange flight patterns sound right at home.  The song moves at an unhurried pace, and the patience with which the melody is expressed brims with confidence and lands it solid.

It’s a very nice sign of things to come, on an album that provides some very intriguing views of the present.  An auspicious debut.

The album is Self-Produced.

Jazz from the Brooklyn scene.

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