Kansas native and current New York City-based guitarist and composer Greg Skaff has played with artists like Stanley Turrentine, in whose band he worked for five years, as well as Bobby Watson, Ruth Brown, Freddie Hubbard, David "Fathead" Newman, Kevin Mahogany and Matt Wilson. East Harlem Skyline is Skaff’s fourth release as a leader.
On this disc, Skaff works within the traditional jazz guitar trio format of guitar, organ and drums. For the outing, he’s selected some great musicians to help him, including George Colligan on Hammond organ and E.J. Strickland on drums. George Laks and Charley Drayton replace Colligan and Strickland on "Willie D," a number that doesn’t really match the tone set on the rest of the disc because of its full on rocked out style. Darryl Jones is added on bass for that one number as well.
Colligan is a true jack-of-all-trades. He works as a pianist, organist, drummer, trumpeter, teacher and as a composer, he’s earned a Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Foundation grant. He’s worked with artists like Gary Bartz, Benny Golson, Tom Harrell, Steve Coleman, Eddie Henderson and Michael Brecker. E.J. Strickland is one of New York’s hottest drummers. He’s worked with Ravi Coltrane, Wynton Marsalis, Nneenna Freelon, Abbey Lincoln, Christian McBride, Herbie Hancock, Wessell Anderson and Dianne Reeves. Together these three are a formidable unit, and they prove it on every cut.
Skaff clearly shows he knows the territory he covers. From originals to covers of Wayne Shorter’s "Angola" and Billy Strayhorn’s "Lotus Blossom," Skaff has a propensity towards melodies that are clearly linear, yet have slight hookish twists which provide good jumping off points for his and his bandmembers' forays into solos. And that, in essence, is what this recording is really all about. The communication established by the three main participants is obviously of the highest order. When either Skaff or Colligan suddenly delve off the written changes or traipse into ornamented rhythmic punctuations, as they do on so delightfully on both "Angola" and "Tropicalia," the bandmates follow as if the trail was originally marked that way.
Skaff’s playing is clean and has a propensity for arpeggiated and arpeggiated driven lines. His swinging is true, but he never allows himself to really settle into a groove. On "Yasmine’s Dance," for example, the waltz feel never settles in. It’s obvious the tune is intended this way from the way Strickland plays offbeats that keep the time together, but only through the brilliant mentally acuity of each musician. With the band achieving such a great time-mind-link, Strickland is freed to totally color the melody and not be subservient to any presupposed role usually associated with drums in the jazz guitar trio format. Skaff uses this mind-link to play around the changes without ever having to "lay them down" in any traditional sense. The result is playing of the highest modern jazz order.
Colligan, as his reputation would lead one to expect, has moments when he truly hits it out of the park. He toys with a number of ideas in the beginning of his solo to "Tropicalia" before putting them together in transposed form through the use of altered upper chordal structured lines that clearly build to a climax, but don’t harmonically resolve themselves before Skaff comes back in to take the tune out. It’s an incredibly hip solo, but might suffer, as a few of his other solos do as well, from being a bit too cerebral for most listeners.
If there is a problem with the disc, it’s that the players are so incredibly accomplished, so harmonically astute, so rhythmically versed and so into the unity they achieve they might leave many mainstream jazz lovers out in the cold. Yet, these three master musicians swing. If you’re a student of jazz or if you’ve ever wondered what intelligent and feeling musicians of the highest order can achieve when they play for their own delight, this is the disc for you. General listeners, however, can bypass this one.