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Year of the Dog by Michael Ross

Eclecticism seems to be the M.O. of the Michael Ross Quartet’s latest release titled "Year of the Dog". The recording is made up of all original pieces written by either bassist/leader Ross or guitarist LaRue Nickelson. The music ranges from latin beats to aggressive modal ostinatos, straight 8th ballads, gritty funk vamps, near-smooth pop/jazz, noir-ish Americana, etc.... There seems to be a trend with jazz groups these days to eschew straight-ahead swing feels out of a desire to be (or be considered) ‘modern’ or maybe ‘avant-garde’. While creating modern, avant-garde, or original music is an excellent goal, it’s not a good idea to let this desire nullify natural impulses (not that this happens on this record; but possibly). While some of the music on "Dog" is certainly well played and enjoyable, embracing eclecticism and shying away from swing doesn’t guarantee creative or ‘successful’ music. That being the case, there’s some worthwhile music on this quartet’s third recording.

The opening tune by Nickelson, "Flight of the Kiwi Bird", begins just like it’s title would suggest - light and breezy. Nickelson begins the tune on guitar with an almost Motown-ish/Temptations-like repetitive line. Pate joins in after the groove is set to lay down some simple (not simplistic) soprano sax lines, sounding like an improved Kenny G. after a good 3-4 years of studying actual jazz music. The 2nd track, "Timshel (for Ian)", is by Ross and moves toward an almost ‘smooth jazz’ sound: an area somewhere between pop and jazz, but edging toward pop. This tune has an earthy straight 8th feel, and Nickelson’s bluesy, acoustic guitar playing on this one keeps it from veering toward schmaltz.

The playing is strong throughout the record. All members have obvious chops and a thorough understanding of their instruments and the idioms. What feels lacking is a genuine connection to the written material on the part of the players. Many of the melodies and forms are lackluster and a few of the solos feel like going through the motions. If the writing was invested consistently with more intensity and feeling, the players approaching the music would, in turn, invest more of themselves in the interpreting. Nevertheless, the record was worth having been made, and this group should keep at it.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Michael Ross
  • CD Title: Year of the Dog
  • Genre: Contemporary Jazz / Modern
  • Year Released: 2004
  • Record Label: Independent
  • Tracks: Flight of the Kiwi Bird, Timshel (for Ian), Moe, Wee-One, Back at the Cathouse, Hymn no. 11, Majid, Year of the Dog, Reven 9for Ralph), King Corona Blues, Hercules, 7.0
  • Musicians: Michael Ross - Bass; David Pate - Saxophones and Bass Clarinet; LaRue Nickelson - Guitars; Walt Hubbard - Drums
  • Rating: Three Stars
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