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Exit 13 by Sylvia Cuenca and Kyle Koehler f. Dave Stryker

Out of soul-surrendering late night juke joints and transformed waffle houses comes a sound with more Spirit than serenity, cobbled together, coordined off from upscale ears, and counted with the flippancy of so much pocket change - a trad trio with open ears and ancient lamentations, mixing popular aspirations (dancing and all that jazz) with the old, precarious nexus that surrounds artistic innovation. Or so the myth runs with regard to the outmoded organ, guitar and drums triumvirate, shuffling and shaking its boogaloo mystique in its musty corner of music history: a unique moment when jazz and R & B merged to reposition the former firmly in the social milieu that gave it rise, while opening the second to a sophistication and formal protocol neither its greatest practitioners nor admirers saw fit or felt the need to articulate. Bring it on home, now. All of which means little to but makes necessary way for this straightforward, unequivocal pleasure from journeywoman drummer Sylvia Cuenca.

Straight as a Saturday night shot, a bona fide gutbucket throwback, Exit 13 scores high marks for the nonchalant, slowly swaggering way it wanders into a specific jazz idiom, focuses its cat-quick reactions, and hits the hallmarks with a sultry mix of aplomb and abandon. Cuenca, the ostensible leader, serves as the not-so-secret weapon here, mixing a firm, booty-shaking rhythmic righteousness (see the get up and dance groove on "Big Ed") with a percussive sophistication that takes trickier beats to unexpected places. For instance, on the title track, written by organist Kyle Koehler, the lady of the house gets things off to a furiously simmering start with a devious, shimmering solo, which melts into alternating sections in 9/8 and 4/4. There is little ostentation about it; she simply darts and weaves, clenches and releases, supports and prods, acting like the conductor for Koehler and guitarist Dave Stryker, the other members of the trio, keeping one foot firmly in the pocket while the other hops wildly around the margins. She boils openly on Duke Pearson’s "Minor League," cymbals crashing and snare snapping to, locking in riffs and restructuring them under both quick-witted solos, but she is also able to burn quietly with subtle restraint on the gorgeous "It’s Easy to Remember." Above all, it is this variety embedded in Cuenca’s approach that keeps this record from the engineless repetition that plagues the worst of organ trio excess - endless groove back beaten straight down the center to irredeemable tedium, a machine running on fumes.

Indeed, it is hard to find fault with a record setting its sights so particularly on a goal that is then achieved with extra artistic wiggle room to spare. The choice of tunes is never obvious, but hardly obscure, while their execution finds a nice mix of uncluttered solo space and closely-wagered, risk-inducing reaction. Koehler - as with fellow modern organists Larry Goldings and Sam Yahel - finds more to explore in the shadow of Larry Young than Jimmy Smith, which is by all means a compliment to the complex (if generally appealing) nature of his approach. Stryker is an absolute master of this genre, his cleanly articulated, riff-and-roll bebop phrasing - punctuated with stretches of Wes Montgomery octave work - paying shuffle-shook service to syncopated groove with every step. It is an outright joy to hear the three of them locked in the uptempo scorchers at which all three excel, solos building to a repeated riff climax, releasing into an outro fadeout: the Book of Groove opened, preached and prayed upon. One more one time, now.

As The Crossing, Cuenca’s previous release on Etoile, surfaced in an entirely different era of jazz history, it will be fascinating to see where she emerges next; she seems tremendously proficient at assembling thoroughly able casts of musicians to mine one style’s structural riches and present them with intact artistic credibility. Such an ethos in lesser hands becomes anathema, but with Cuenca it amounts to a high-stakes game of musical suspense: the listener is left to wait eagerly for the next installment. Or one may simply sit back late on a Saturday night, settle into the soul-satisfying surge of Exit 13, and surrender to its time-tested release.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Sylvia Cuenca and Kyle Koehler f. Dave Stryker
  • CD Title: Exit 13
  • Genre: Soul / Funk Jazz
  • Year Released: 2002
  • Record Label: Etoile
  • Rating: Three Stars
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