Thursday, February 01, 2018

CD Review: Richard X. Bennett - Experiments With Truth/ What Is Now

Richard X. Bennett
Experiments With Truth
What Is Now

Pianist Richard X. Bennett has played all manner of music in New York since he moved there from Toronto in the '90s. These two albums marks his first stateside releases, though he's been fairly productive in the ensuing years. His previous work has been released in India, albeit on one of the country's largest imprints, Times Music, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Having lived in Mumbai as well as New York City, Bennett has become familiar with Indian ragas and, in the past, has combined traditional Indian classical musicians with jazz improvisation. That approach drives the compositions on Experiments with Truth, which are played by an open-eared jazz group. Bassist Adam Armstrong and drummer Alex Wyatt hold down the grooves with Bennett. On top of them, baritone saxophonist Lisa Parrott and tenor saxophonist Matt Parker bring the melodies to life. The two-horn attack sounds especially heavy when they stick to the lower registers of their horns. The opening honk of "Say Om 108 Times" hits especially hard, tipping the hat towards another aspect of Bennett's early inspirations: the World Saxophone Quartet and traditional New Orleans jazz. Armstrong often embellishes the grooves with counter-melodies that play up the group's funky quality.

Several tracks are subtitled with the ragas that Bennett used as a launching point. "The Fabulist (Raga Malakauns)" initially feels minimal, with a simple spare from Bennett. When the group eventually breaks into a chord change, it feels like the initial groove has been part of a tension-and-release set up and the group a lot of mileage out of it. "Portrait In Sepia" has a noirish feel to it, with a slippery bass line which could be  a lost soundtrack that Henry Mancini wrote for Peter Gunn, thanks to the romantic feel major key shift in the bridge. Parrott picks up this blend of darkness and intrigue.

Bennett has called himself a minimalistic player who nevertheless finds inspiration in the extended melodies lines that vocalists improvise. Both of these aspects are present on What Is Now, which jettisons the saxophonists for a trio outing. By narrowing the scope of the sound, the album doesn't have the same impact as Experiments. The trio kicks up some compelling grooves that hint at soul-jazz, compounded by the authoritative way that Bennett stabs at the chords.

But many of the tracks come in under five minutes, setting a mood without really getting a chance to develop it before things fade out. Armstrong again takes some strong solos, doubling up the tempo over his comrades. A new take on that old standard "Over the Rainbow" gives it a 6/8 gospel feel, but it buries the melody in favor of the rich chords. This epitomizes the shortcomings of What Is Now: it features a lot of ear-catching harmonies but it lacks the key elements (more blowing, another lead instrument/voice) that get it to its destination. Bennett has the dexterity to get a couple ideas rolling with both hands. There could be a little more of that here.

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