One of the great things about reviewing music is the sense of discovery that comes with it. I sometimes feel like an artistic "Indiana Jones" the first time I play some great new disc by some great group of musicians of which I know little, if anything, about. When it’s really good, I feel like I’ve uncovered some rare treasure and I can’t wait to share it with the rest of the world. That's exactly how I feel about this new disc, Sketches from a Bassist’s Album, by the wonderful bassist Ari Roland.
This is actually the second recording that I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Roland’s playing on (the other being pianist Frank Hewitt’s Four Hundred Saturdays, also released on Smalls Records in 2005), so he’s not exactly a new find for me, but I’m not any less excited. On the Hewitt disc I got a taste of his great playing, but as a leader he delivers a heaping serving to what was only hinted at on the earlier disc. A bop bassist through and through, one thing that allows Roland to stand apart from many other great bassists around is his affinity for playing his bass with a bow. Anyone that knows can surely attest to the difficulty inherent in such an endeavor: the double bass is extremely difficult to bow in tune and I assume that’s one of the reasons there are so few bassists that use the technique extensively. Thankfully for us, Roland does it and does it better than just about anyone else that I’ve heard.
Though there is lots of great bowing on the album, that’s only one small aspect of Roland’s talent as a jazz musician. His sense of timing, his ability to swing (walking or bowing), his fantastic tone, are all awe-inspiring. But in addition, he’s also a great composer. Seven of the ten tunes presented his are his originals. Songs with titles like "Swamp Thing Goes to the Indy 500" and "Ah, Transcapathicus" are beautifully interpreted here by his fellow musicians. Chris Byars on tenor sax (sounding quite Joe Lovano-like on this disc), is the lone horn and plays most of the heads. His lines, stabbing and searching, paint great pictures. On piano, Sacha Perry, equally talented with both his left and right hands, throws down interestingly complex harmonies, whether delivering a great solo or comping behind the other players. Rounding out the group is Phil Stewart on drums, who keeps everything tight and grounded, while treating us to a couple of brilliant solos of his own.
Sketches from a Bassist’s Album is a warm, welcoming album of hard bop tunes with great, memorable melodies and jaw-dropping solos that deserves a spot on the shelf of any jazz fan’s collection.