First of All
First Of All...By Jakob Bækgaard (Review from All About Jazz Dec. 2007) Discussions of who deserves the recognition of being a "guitarist's guitarist" often bring up such names as Tal Farlow and Johnny Smith. They are guitar players who step naturally into the spotlight, easily grabbing the attention of the ears, technically superb and lyrically sophisticated with a clear, recognisable tone. There's also another type of a "guitarist's guitarist," whose talent lies in working behind the scenes. His (or her) talent is the ability to create an atmosphere around the music that allows all the musicians to be heard, connecting part to whole. It isn't just about perfecting fast fluid runs on the guitar, rather it is about creating a more organic musical picture. Lennie Tristano's underrated guitarist Billy Bauer was a master in this kind of interplay, the same can be said of modern players like Ben Monder and Jakob Bro. Oren Neiman is another guitarist who likes to bring the spotlight away from himself. The focus on First Of All..., is the compositions. Instead of being a vehicle for instrumental extravaganza, each tune functions as a piece in the puzzle that creates the tranquil mood of the album. The sound is ethereal with the same use of space that can be found in the signature productions of ECM-engineer extraordinaire, Jan-Erik Kongshaug. The musical axis of First Of All... is the interplay between Neiman and saxophonist Mike Stewart, whose soft velvety tone is the perfect partner for Neiman's thoughtful playing. There is a slight edge to Neiman's tone which may stem from his past as rock musician. Another lesson from this past could be his ability to cut to the bone. The fallacy of being lost in ornamental doodling is the risk of every jazz guitarist, but it's completely absent in Neiman's almost ascetic play. This doesn't mean that his playing is simple; far from it. Compositions like "Sky Lark" and "JKD" evolve in tightly structured musical patterns that somehow manage to sound both relaxed and intense. This is due, in no small part, to the excellent musicianship of the rhythm section. Bassist Nick Szatmari and drummer Kenny Shaw blend in perfectly, allowing Neiman and Stewart to bloom while subtly distilling their own ideas. On "Crystal Clear," Neiman explores an oriental sound that is reminiscent John Abercrombie's experiments; no coincidence, since Neiman has studied with him. Fans of Abercrombie's Gateway projects, with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, will definitely find a lot to enjoy on First Of All.... In spite of the shadow of the master, Neiman has moved forward and found his own voice. First Of All... is an album of coherent beauty, showing an ambitious player following his own musical vision.