May 15, 2001
Between the lines btl 015/EFA 10185-2
James Emery leads a valiant fight, but in the end he's done in by the acoustic guitar curse. Ever since jazzers switched over to the electric model following Charlie Christian's tenure with Benny Goodman's band in 1939-1941, the acoustic model has been little more than the electric's poor cousin. Sure, versatile soloists like Charlie Byrd and Laurindo Almeida may have concentrated on it for renditions of Brazilian music and standards, but this conservative approach was in retrospect only impressive when compared to lite-jazz, New Age or fusion followers who brandish the instrument to convey their so-called sensitive sides.
So what's James Emery, certified avant gardist and co-founder of jazz's most outside string group — The String Trio of New York — doing with an acoustic axe? Attempting to create interesting chamber jazz that's what. Whether he succeeds is another matter, however. For despite an all-star cast performing all original material, the tunes often appear to be almost too polite. The sidemen may be some of New York's most accomplished "downtowners", but overloading the session with such "softer" instruments as the acoustic guitar, flute and vibes pushes the session towards 1950s' jazz'n'satin excursions from the likes of George Shearing's quintet.
Luckily Emery has called upon one of the toughest accompaniment team — bassist Drew Gress and drummer Gerry Hemingway to hold things together. But on a tune like "En Rapport" you get the feeling that the drummer is hitting much harder than usual just to keep the piece from being drowned in froth. Then on something like "Violet Into The Blue", with its modified tango beat, the clarinet harmony is cloying. Even when someone like Marty Ehrlich constructs an alto solo that contains the tougher elements of Art Pepper's early style, it's Emery's lighter guitar string attack that makes the tune earthbound. Elsewhere, Chris Speed may let loose on tenor saxophone and Ehrlich do the same on clarinet on the vaguely Latin "Across The Water", but by the time the melody is elaborated, you get the uneasy feeling that it's the continuation of another tune, not a standalone piece.
Cool/West Coast Jazz conceptions, with every note locked into place also seem to come to the fore on "Exit To Nowhere" and other pieces. There likely haven't been as many vibe runs or doubled flute echoes recorded since the heyday of Pacific Jazz in the early 1950s. Strangely enough Emery may have taken the title of 'Exit" to heart, for here he appears to strengthen his attack to cut through the woodwinds.
During earlier Jazz eras, musicians sometimes put out sessions where they "played pretty for the people" and LUMINOUS CYCLES could easily fit into that niche. The musicianship here is still top notch and the conception pleasant enough. If you're a rabid fan of any of the musicians involved you may have a higher opinion of this CD as well. But, overall, while pleasant enough, it seems to lack the go-for-broke spark that illuminates really memorable music.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Luminous Cycles 2. One red Thread 3. Beyond Words 4. En Rapport 5. Exit To Nowhere 6. Across The Water 7. Cardinal Points 8. Violet Into The Blue
Personnel: Marty Ehrlich (alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, flute); Chris Speed (tenor saxophone, clarinet); James Emery (acoustic guitar); Drew Gress (bass); Gerry Hemingway (drums, glockenspiel); Kevin Norton (marimba, vibes, tympani, bowed tam-tam)