Sandy Bull & The Rhythm Ace
(Drag City/Galactic Zoo Disk)
Reading Spin magazine’s recent and contentious list of “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” which was created to purposefully “veer toward the alternative canon,” this writer couldn’t help but think, “Where’s Sandy Bull, seriously?” Best known for his recordings on Vanguard Records in the ’60s, Bull was ostensibly a folk musician, but that label is woefully inadequate. His guitar playing chops were more than competent, but what really set Bull apart from the crowd was his bold willingness to explore. His eclecticism drew from sources such as Brazilian composer Luiz Bonfa or Indian ragas, and he could meld classical and folk pieces into new creations that sounded harmonious and unforced, such as his notable banjo arrangement of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana. Also, it’s not a stretch to draw a line between Bull’s lengthy, transportive electric guitar numbers and the territory mapped by psychedelic and shoegazer bands in the ’90s.
Live 1976 is an immaculately recorded set, documenting Bull opening for Leo Kottke at the Berkeley Community Theater. He was accompanied by his four-track recorder, which supplied pre-recorded backing tracks, and a Rhythm Ace drum machine. The album opens with “Oud,” featuring Bull on the titular African lute, capturing a North African vibe with freely flowing melodies, further confounding the notion of Bull as a folk performer, with primitive beatbox sounds and artificial flange effects. The hippie cheese of “Love Is Forever” features Bull’s singing—not his strong point—before the more palatable, breezy track “Driftin’” inspired by The Drifters, with a pop structure, easygoing counterpoint, and pedal-steel soloing. The final two tracks are somewhat long, hypnotic wanderings that are enjoyable but without much drama. Live 1976 is not the best starting point for newcomers, but fans will appreciate it for expanding their notion of Bull’s range and the places he was willing to visit.
A dandruff shampoo commercial once offered a sage piece of advice, saying that a person doesn’t get a second chance to make a first impression. This comes to mind when considering the debut album Falling Up from Nashville tenor saxophonist Evan Cobb, a seasoned jazz performer, not because the album is disappointing; quite the contrary–clearly, Cobb took his time and wanted to present an absolutely sparkling, impressive first impression.
Cobb demonstrates a playing style that is smoky, nimble, and mellifluous; his tone is not flowery but cleanly expressive and articulate. In Cobb’s quintet, trumpeter Matt White is a fine match; he’s brazen and dexterous when needed, but he also has a good sense of restraint and timing. Two tracks feature guest saxophonist Jeff Coffin (who plays with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones) including the excellent “Mahdernism,” which begins with an irresistible bass-and-piano crime noir riff and slides into stereo-channel-separated call and response exchanges between Cobb and Coffin.
The tracks on Falling Up came together as Cobb was composing tunes in order to elucidate and open conversations regarding the language of jazz at the monthly jam sessions held at the Nashville Jazz Workshop. Knowing this, it makes sense to hear various styles at work on the album in creative combinations, like on the pert opening track “Tip Tap Toe,” which goes from a vague tango motif to a more swinging, bouncy attitude. The spirited “Eastern Bell Feel” starts with Cobb and White playing a melody in tandem, darting about and providing little outbursts with non-obvious phrasing. Falling Up is a crisp, practically spotless set of recordings, at times evoking classic jazz circa late ‘50s from masters such as John Coltrane or Dexter Gordon, but certain nuanced flourishes and methods keep it from being a purely nostalgic retread.
Evan Cobb will play Barking Legs Theater on Thursday, May 24.