PARAPHERNALIA / SHORTER: E.S.P. Yes And/Or No. Iris. Mahjong. Fall. Paraphernalia. Miyako. Harlequin. Tom Thumb. Infant Eyes / Jeff Benedict, t-sax/s-sax; Dave Askren, gtr; Jonathan Pintoff, bs; Chris Garcia, perc / Tapestry 76029-2
I admit to not knowing much of Wayne Shorter’s music because I have never been a really huge fan of his playing (sorry about that). I find several of his improvisations somewhat ugly and unstructured, though I do have one Miles Davis album with him on it (Nefertiti) and also the V.S.O.P. album that he made with Freddie Hubbard (one of my all-time favorite trumpeters).
Thus I approached this CD with an open mind, and although I was not particularly fond of the overly funky beat used on the opener, E.S.P., I was happy to hear that guitarist Dave Askren plays with rather more rhythmic energy than most of his compeers. His solo on this piece is a perfect example of his prowess: rhythmically lively and highly inventive, with a clear sense of construction that, to me, surpassed the basic material he was improvising on. His partner in this quartet, tenor saxist Jeff Benedict, is a lively musician with an equally good flow to his playing but not quite as original in his solos as Askren. Bassist Pintoff and drummer Garcia maintain a good, tight feeling behind them.
Yes And/Or No is a Latin-based piece that almost sounds like something from the Bossa Nova school, though the melodic line is rather paltry compared to Jobim’s more sophisticated work. Benedict really flies on this number, better than on the opener. I noticed a particular trait of his playing, however, and that is his penchant for playing in a regular division of rhythm: nearly every phrase he plays has the same rhythmic feel and division of beats. This is where Askren is different; nothing he plays is really predictable in any way, shape or form.
Since they apparently work as co-leaders, I’m sure that Askren would not be happy with my making that judgment, but as the CD progressed I could not shake the impression. Benedict is good, no question about it, but if you compare him to, say, someone like Noah Preminger, who really is extraordinary, he just sounds pretty good, whereas Askren is on a higher level of invention throughout this CD. I just couldn’t wait to hear his solos as I went from track to track. On Iris, bassist Pintoff also solos, and his playing, too, is solid and professional without being as exceptional as co-leader Askren. I was not entirely surprised to learn that Askren began his playing career as a clarinetist and saxophonist when young before switching to the guitar at age 14. In many ways, he thinks like a reed player on the guitar.
On Mahjong, Benedict plays one of his most interesting solos on the album, a bit more adventurous than his others and occasionally breaking away from his penchant for a regular rhythm to plays some very imaginative flights of fancy in the upper range of his horn. When Askren enters, his playing sounds a little subdued at first, as if he were thinking of a response to what Benedict had just played, but in the second half of the first chorus he shifts his beat to a sort of fast blues feel and takes an entirely different direction. As I say, it isn’t that he play a lot of notes, it’s just that the ones he plays are consistently interesting.
Shorter’s compositions are fairly regular in construction as jazz tunes—there are few, if any, real surprises in terms of harmony, melody or rhythm—but Askren (and occasionally Benedict) make the most of them. This CD will repay your careful listening, particularly to the guitar solos.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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