Donovan Mixon has seen some of the world in the last two decades, and the influences show in Culmination. After teaching at the Berklee College of Music, the guitarist spent seven years in Italy, then ten in Turkey, bouncing between freelance work and teaching. Now he's back, with a group of mostly Turkish musicians, and the result is a mix of chamber jazz, world music, and bop that is intense, yet quiet and film-like in atmosphere.
While the title track won Mixon an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, it is only one of several excellent compositions on this release. Each one features a different combination of instrumentation, with sax, trumpet, and cello coming and going, occasionally featured, but never for long. Serhan Erkol has a beautiful tone on saxophone, especially when he plays baritone, and Senova Ulker mixes in nicely with trumpet and flugelhorn. More constant is Ayca Ergin on the ney, a Turkish wooden flute, who takes quite a few solos, and carries much of the melody on many tracks. Some tunes, such as "Summer of '78," have a distinctly Mediterranean feel, with Mixon's gentle guitar runs interweaving through the more prominent ney out front. Others, including "The Dance of Life" and the title track, are closer to contemporary jazz with a European flair. The complex rhythm changes suggest contemporary classical music as well. The group switches up the atmosphere with "We Are Yo Kids," a fun tune with Italian flavorings and some nice baritone sax work from Erkol.
With "Eddi & Daniela" the group begins to get a bit more mystical, with Jeff McAuley's cello and Ergin's ney trading solos, and Turkish rhythms entering and morphing the piece as it develops. Mixon's guitar sparkles briefly, but doesn't stay long enough. Where he really lets loose is in the longest track, "Quando Il Lupo Annusa i Fiori" (When the Wolf Smells the Flowers), when he picks up the electric guitar and solos extensively. The piece has a distant, noir-like feel, far more a bop tune than much of the rest of the album, and my personal favorite. Mixon is a very fine guitarist, and my major complaint about this release is that he doesn't showcase his own playing enough. Everyone else's playing is fine, and Mixon does a great job in the background for many pieces, holding things together, but sometimes the leader needs to be in the foreground. Mixon certainly deserves to be.
Mixon's years in other countries has influenced both his guitar playing and his approach to jazz in many ways. In some of his earlier releases from the 1990s he includes at least a few tracks that take a more decisive attitude with the electric guitar. Now he is more laid back in style and more willing to give up the lead, which for this introspective release is a good move. However, I'd still like to hear him ring the rafters once in a while with his ax, and am looking forward to his next album.