Friday, April 24, 2020

CD Review: Paul Bryan - Cri$el Gems

Paul Bryan
Cri$el Gems

Paul Bryan is the kind of musician who gets around. A Grammy Award-winning producer for his work on Aimee Mann's Mental Illness album, he also played on Jeff Parker's recent Suite for Max Brown (International Anthem), in which the longstanding Tortoise guitarist blended electric jazz with spacey grooves and samples.  Both Bryan and Parker also appear on drummer Jeremy Cunningham's The Weather Up There (Northern Spy) which came out in February.

So the story goes, Bryan hadn't played in a jazz vein for several years. That changed when Parker moved to Los Angeles and pushed his college friend back in that direction. Cri$el Gems is the result of a year-long residency at the performance space ETA where Bryan played with a rotating cast of players, eventually taking a few into the studio to capture the mood of those sets. Along with Parker, the group consists of drummer Matt Mayhall and electric pianist Leo Pardini. Davey Chegwidden (congas) and Jay Bellerose (percussion) also appear on a few tracks.

Pardini's electric piano really sets the mood for the album, projecting a mellow vibe while giving the sound some grease at the same time. Parker maintains a clean tone, adding single note lines to the music, never getting too heavy but always making sure thing don't relax too much. It's a challenge to cover Aimee Mann's "It's So Easy To Die" with no lyrics to drive the song, but by slowing it to a sleepy pace, these players project a different aura that sustains the song's looping chord progression. If the sound of the group evokes the not-quite-fusion feel of electric '70s jazz, their 21st-century mindset ensures that they're playing modern, not retro, music.

Bryan spends a lot of Cri$el Gems in the background, keeping the players on solid ground rather than playing up his role as a leader. Together with Mayhall and the various percussionists, they create enough rhythmic action to make sure things never lock in and get too calm. He does, however, peel off a slinky solo on "Lucky Thirteen" to assert his presence. The writing has a casual feel, but he uses rhythmic shifts to give it twists and turns. His 6/4 vamp in the first half  of "Pyramid Scheme" gives the rest of the group plenty of room to stretch out freely. "Phife" also adds a subtle chord change that becomes a serious melodic hook. While the album could have used a couple more of those small changes to yield a bigger harmonic impact, the group still serves up an engaging set that makes you wonder what those nights at ETA were like when they'd stretch out a little longer than five to seven minutes.

Incidentally, the album title is pronounced "crizzle gems." Although it sounds like a Snoop Dog homage, it came from Bryan's daughter, who walked into his studio during a mixing session and drew a picture inspired by what she heard. The resulting picture of a bass guitar had the title written on it.

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