Though Irwin's music fits comfortably in the mainstream of modern jazz, "Blood And Thunder" has an intimate and somewhat quirky sound that would keep any listener engaged and on their toes. Irwin's solos flow with a smooth, effortless facility and his tone is nothing short of lush. His playing tends towards the intellectual, subdued sort of approach that I associate with players such as Lee Konitz. Yet, there's a palpable warmth and humor to his composing and to his soloing that offsets his analytical tendencies. Irwin's playful humor shines through on nearly every tune - the lugubriously sour harmonies of the title track, the parroting of some of Ben Monder's phrasing during his solo on 'The Wizard,' the whimsically chirpy melody of 'Sprung,' and the folksy, almost anachronistic sound of 'Back To You' (played with a somewhat exaggerated vibrato) being prime examples.
Each tune on Blood And Thunder seems to pay tribute to a specific stylistic aspect of jazz. 'Like The Sunshine' is a funky, slinky piece that pays homage to the New Orleans sound with its second line rhythmic feel. 'The Wizard' is a modified tango with smoky solos by Cheek, Monder, and Irwin. The swirling, super-cool interplay of Irwin and Cheek on 'From This Moment On' (one of two standards on this disc) pays homage to Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. 'Little Hurts' is, by contrast, an appealingly dark jazz-rock sort of tune with a stalking bass line, fuzzed-out guitar, and pounding drums reminiscent of Bill Frisell's later ECM recordings. 'Until We Say Our Last Goodbye,' with Eliza Cho's lovely violin harmonies, is a sweet ballad that, again, seems to be from another era. 'Very Early,' Bill Evans' classic jazz ballad, is played absolutely straight, but avoids being either worshipful or maudlin.
Irwin has chosen his sidemen wisely. Chris Cheek is one of the busiest tenor saxophonists around, and for good reason - every aspect of his playing is mature and fully formed, and he is a consistently inventive and engaging soloist who can play in any style. I have long been a fan of guitarist Ben Monder's post-Frisell stylings. He is equally at home comping in a subdued fashion behind either saxophonist or stomping hard on the effects boxes (as he does on the title track). Ferenc Nemeth, a new name to me, is a completely adept jazz drummer with a lean, clean style, Nemeth has also fully incorporated hand drums and other percussives into his kit. On 'Like The Sunshine' and 'The Wizard,' he performs the ride pattern on a tambourine, and a snare pattern on a cajon or cowbell - switching back and forth between these instruments and the snare, toms and cymbals to give the tunes a distinctive color and shape.
Blood And Thunder is an engaging listen with some really interesting and original touches. Aaron Irwin is an artist of admirable range and ability, and I am looking forward to his next recording.