Jury Is Out
By Scott Yanow, author of ten jazz books including The Jazz Singers, Bebop, Trumpet Kings, Jazz On Film and Jazz On Record 1917-76 In listening to pianist-composer Eric Muhler's fifth CD, a live quartet outing with tenor and soprano-saxophonist Sheldon Brown, bassist Michael Wilcox and drummer Brian Andres, two aspects to the music become immediately apparent. First is how tight the musicians are while playing music that is generally very spontaneous. They listen very closely to each other, react immediately to the ideas that are introduced, and express themselves with a single voice. Whether it is changes in moods, grooves or atmosphere, the four musicians are of a single mind. They head toward a common destination even though they probably could not tell listeners exactly where they are going until they get there! The second quality is the consistent originality of Eric Muhler. His chord voicings are his own, his improvisations are full of constant surprises and, although quite aware of the jazz tradition, he sounds unlike any of his predecessors. His writing is also very fresh and personal, evolving before listeners' ears and expressing a wide variety of emotions and moods. While always swinging in it's own way, this is not revival bebop. Recorded live at the Hillside Club, a 150-seat concert venue in Berkeley, this performance introduces seven of Eric's originals. While none of the selections are exactly simple to play, the musicians sound quite comfortable in both the ensembles and their individual solos. They express their individuality while staying true to the pianist's music. A full play-by-play is not necessary but here are a few highlights. The quartet opens the program with Punkly, a minor-toned, 12 bar, blues swinger. Sand Castles introduces Sheldon Brown who blows up a tenor storm on the late-1960s Elvin Jones-type groove. On Alexandra Cristina A.M. his lyrical soprano-sax interprets the wistful melody while accompanied by rhythmic accents from the pianist. The solos start quietly before gradually becoming passionate and intense. Listen to how active bassist Wilcox and drummer Andres are behind Muhler while still remaining tasteful. It is little wonder that the pianist sounds quite inspired. For 1990 For Jane, a rhythmic pattern performed by Eric Muhler evolves logically into the melody and the hard-swinging solos. The up-tempo The Jury Is Out contains plenty of fireworks both from the tenor and Muhler's powerful piano. Sun & Clouds demonstrates the group's ability to play through a spectrum of extreme musical states. The song's complex but somewhat peaceful melody, lays the groundwork for both quiet and intense improvisations. Wilcox's solo on this and other tunes demonstrate his remarkable melodic sense, and he emerges as a true, front-line soloist. As "stormy" as the music becomes, the sun shines through at the end. The finale, Jane At Home has a distinguished-sounding melody that matches well with it's feel as a catchy strut. The closing ensembles are particularly stirring. This is 21st century jazz played by four masterful musicians and featuring the vision and creative music of Eric Muhler. It is not to be missed.