SQUARE PEG / GODFREY: Black Stars. Square Peg. No Gig Today. U.S.S. Rent-a-Car. Skyline. One Game Away From Winter. Forty Minutes or More. Driving Westbound. McDuff. Bucket List / Allison Au, a-sax; Matt Woroshyl, t-sax; Chris Pruden, pno; Mark Godfrey, bs; Nick Fraser, dm / Independent release, no label or number
For millions of millennials and Gen-Xers, the minivan replaced the station wagons of old as the Family Vehicle of Choice (well, maybe also Necessity) to cart Da Family around. But even the direction and reasons for the carting have changed. When I was young, the carting was mostly to school if we missed the bus, to Girl or Boy Scout meetings, to church on Sundays and to visit grandma or uncles-aunts-cousins on weekends. Sad to say, none of us played soccer and frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t forced to do so. And no one in my family was skilled enough to qualify for Little League baseball. We were lucky we could make contact when we played stickball in the street. In this case, however, it refers to Godfrey’s own 2006 Dodge Grand Caravan, which he used to commute between Toronto and New York for four years. He named it “Jean Claude Van Tan.”
But jollity aside, this is one strange album. The music is generally soft and moody, which would normally place it in the category of “soft jazz,” but the compositions are harmonically interesting and quite advanced in musical concept. I was also delighted to see alto saxist Allison Au, whose quartet recording Forest Grove I reviewed in October 2017, as part of the group here. She is an outstanding player whose work enhances any jazz ensemble.
But the others are also quite good, and although I felt that pianist Chris Pruden’s playing was spacier and more minimal in design, all contribute to the whole. This is also one of those rare albums nowadays where the rhythm section functions as a unit most of the time, with the bassist and drummer normally on the same page rhythmically, although in the opener (Black Stars) I felt that Nick Fraser was a little too loud behind Pruden’s solo.
Godfrey clearly has his own concept of jazz composition, and one wonders if Pruden’s spacey solos were not part of the grand scheme, as they provide the centerpiece to each of the first two pieces. Perhaps he wanted to simulate the random thoughts that went through his mind during those long commutes. In Square Peg, the piano and the rest of the band fade away to allow bassist Godfrey an extended solo of his own, in which the drums re-enter during his second chorus. No Gig Today is a jazz samba, one of the few extroverted pieces on the album, with good solos throughout. Au and Woroshyl also play a nice duo-chorus in this one, followed by a chase chorus, somewhat reminiscent of the kind of thing that Zoot Sims and Al Cohn did so well back in the 1960s and ‘70s.
U.S.S. Rent-a-Car begins as one of the most “formed” pieces and, despite its rather slow tempo, one of the most swinging on this album, with an outstanding tenor solo by Woroshyl; eventually, the piece disintegrates into free-form jazz, with both saxists splattering notes all over each other as the piece sort of drags to the finish line.
The remaining tracks are all in one or another of these same kind of grooves, and although there are times when the listener conflates one piece with another, each one, taken by itself, is excellent. Pruden’s piano, surprisingly, is much busier and more outgoing in Skyline. while One Game Away from Winter is pensive, almost a bit melancholy in tone. Forty Minutes or More alternates between quick, straightahead swing and slower, more pensive moments when the tempo is pulled back to allow for musings and explorations (and a fine drum solo).
Towards the end of the album, I felt that some of the pieces, e.g. Driving Westbound, sounded a bit too much like others on the CD, but overall this is an interesting excursion in Godfrey’s Dodge Caravan of music.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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