Named after a Portland jazz haunt, George Mitchell’s Play Zone
is nothing if not good straight-ahead swinging post-bop jazz. There’s nothing terribly fascinating or unusual about this album. Each player is incredibly competent, a term meant in only the most complementary fashion.
Mitchell handles the duties on piano and Hammond B-3, while Dan Balmer compliments with a guitar style that echoes John McLean. Balmer’s tone is a bit cleaner, and his style a bit leaner than McLean however. Scott Steed on bass lays down a solid foundation, while Chris Lee’s driving ride cymbal owes no small debt to Tony Williams. Patrick Lamb’s full tone on tenor does not quite fit timbrally with the thin texture offered by the rest of the group, though his melodic sense is very developed, offering pleasant diversions from the harmonically complex thoughts of Mitchell and Balmer. Rob Davis, who takes tenor duties on the track "Uniforms," is perhaps a better fit for the ensemble, especially in duet with Balmer on the track’s head.
Mitchell sounds equally comfortable on the piano and B-3, no small task. His B-3 playing is a bit more reserved, though he tends to flail a bit at the piano nearly losing control of his ideas on uptempo numbers like "Uniforms." The band knows how to groove, however, following Mitchell’s lead and sliding gracefully back and forth from groove tunes like "Let’s Get With It," and "Croatian Sensation," to hard-swinging numbers like "All the Things You Are."
I think the biggest compliment one can pay George Mitchell is that with Play Zone, he’s made a thoroughly professional album. With the possible exceptions of Dan Balmer’s chorus on "Uniforms" and Mitchell and Steed’s lyricism on the trio (Balmer, Steed and Lee) tune "Thank You, New York" (a contrafact of "Body and Soul"), nothing on this album stands out. The album is simply good jazz played by very good players.