Sunny southern California hasn’t been known as much of a jazz spot for many years. In the postwar period, of course, it was not only a proving ground for so-called "West Coast" warriors like Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, the Hermosa Beach Lighthouse All-Stars and their ilk, but also sported a serious variety of future talent along the back alleys, byways, and dark corners of Central Avenue - where Ornette Coleman discovered Something Else, Charles "Baron" Mingus first battled inner Underdogs, Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon Chased, and Eric Dolphy first found freedom. In recent years, southern California has served more as the jazz musician’s destination for financial freedom - inside the domesticated world of movie soundtrack studios - and less as a viable artistic "scene," which is why it is hopeful, if not altogether exciting, to see this volume of uncommercial jazz from Los Angeles based guitar trio Outfits. And while guitarist John Stowell, six-string bassist Tommy Lockett, and drummer John Lewis do indeed improvise over a wide-ranging set of compositions - from sources as diverse as Jobim, Wayne Shorter, and Tom Harrell - the resulting sound is less late night Central Avenue and more midday Melrose Avenue.
This is primarily a by-product of the trio’s apparent lack of dynamic range; while certainly technically adept musicians, the three tend to let grooves trickle away rather than escalate, to stagnate rather than surprise, and to shift gears independently rather than together. An example being Wayne Shorter’s "Toy Tune," which after a brief theme statement drifts into an intriguing free section. However, while Stowell begins to push the limits, Lockett locks in with brief, perfunctory counterpoint and Lewis seems entirely lost, filling when he should fold, hesitating when he should explode. Lockett comes back in with a 4/4 walking beat, releasing the group into its habitual mundane momentum, and they sail slowly together through a couple choruses of unarousing theme statement. As happens frequently throughout the disc - such as on the overlong "Nefertiti," the watery, unsatisfying "When Jasper Grows Up," or the slow and sun-drenched "Scene" - the three sound like they have learned to play the songs, just not together. The interplay is merely interpretive, not interactive - interpassive perhaps?
Perhaps this sense is a side effect of too-studied studio work and not enough live work on the killing floor of jazz clubs, as the trio’s too-short version of Jovino Neto’s "The Girl’s Colors" bubbles with an intensity hardly found elsewhere on the album. Lockett’s highly intricate melody statement embellishes the lyrical Brazilian theme with a barrage of thirty-second notes and tricky resolutions, Stowell pushes the proceedings with strumming more flamenco than Rio, while Lewis keeps dizzying time amidst a flutter of well thought out accents. The bassist’s six-string electric gives him the room to handle a danceable two-step rhythm while simultaneously echoing in his upper register Stowell’s melody statements on guitar. The whole performance comes to a sudden close well before its natural course has run dry, but it is a sharp, witty, three-minute mélange of influences, held together by sensitivity and a sense of insistence curiously missing from a majority of the other tracks. Perhaps it is the tempo, perhaps it is the flexibility of the melody, or perhaps it was well rehearsed before they arrived in the studio, but whatever the reason, this track stands up to repeated listenings with a shout that all that technical acumen is finally good for more than impressing your cronies down at the local guitar shop.
If these moments of excitement are relatively rare on the album as a whole, glimpses are seen every so often - in the call and response opening to Jim Hall’s "Two’s Blues," and in its twelve-bar alternating solos, in the quasi-military march of Steve Swallow’s "Outfits," or in the convincing samba rendered on Jobim’s "Caminhos Cruzados," which finally finds a groove to build on without relinquishing it with carelessness or demolishing it with power-trio pyrotechnics. Certainly, Outfits has found a unique sound worthy of pursuing, full of clean cadences and promising virtuosity, particularly coming as it does from a part of the world so intent on crass commercialism in favor of genuine artistic innovation. However, in order to succeed in the long run and on the bigger stage, the group will need to find a way to harness that energy into a more confluent, contemplative whole.