The Vancouver-based Songlines label has distinguished itself several times, particularly in the mid-’90s, by recording bright emerging talent in music from left of center — in the process helping spark the careers of several out-jazzers. The list includes Ellery Eskelin (tenor), Chris Speed (reeds), Dave Douglas (trumpet), Brad Shepik (guitar), and Jim Black (drums). These startling talents have matured and blossomed, often together, over the years.
Ryan Blotnick is a mere 24, he’s based in NYC, this quintet disc is his first as a leader, and it’s on Songlines. Here we go again? We’ll have to wait and see. Blotnick definitely knows how to play the guitar, in the best senses of the word, and he has developed a distinctive personal voice on the instrument. A sticker on the cover of the disc proffers paternal praise from Ben Monder and John Abercrombie. Maybe they couldn’t track down Kurt Rosenwinkel, because those three players are probably his closest established relatives in the modern jazz guitar world.
Like Blotnick, they’re interesting to listen to. They often deviate from typical linear (melodic) and vertical (harmonic) thinking, incorporating a much more elastic sense of time, as well as an ear for so-called “atonal” music (both the twelve-tone kind and the free jazz kind, which are actually related). All three have bright minds, judging by their idiosyncratic music and the clever improvisation they feed into it. Their respect for tradition, their regular tugs against it, and the way they draw from other styles all help make their music particularly curious.
Eight of the nine tracks on Music Needs You are Blotnick compositions. Most are pretty subtle in tone and approach, though there are several rough spots along the way. The group establishes a laid-back mode on the first track, an affable, safe, and articulate introduction. But then an Ornette Coleman-like vibe jumps in on “Thinning Air”, complete with oblique melody, exaggerated swing (swagger?), and dual lines. The theme, as played by Blotnick and altoist Pete Robbins, draws strength from the fact that the two players’ tone and range are very similar, thus rendering subtle differences more apparent. Robbins, a very adaptable and mature player, seems particularly tuned into the leader’s voice and approach. Check “Barceloneta” and “Liberty”, the latter solidly and a bit ironically laid into a pulsing rock groove, for some excellent examples.
The rest of the group, a piano trio, provides a supportive foundation, but also takes a few risks. Joe Smith works the cymbals with great detail and attention to dynamics — a neglected necessity in the drumming world (perhaps best exploited in jazz by Paul Motian and the late Billy Higgins). Pianist Albert Sanz allows Blotnick plenty of room to move around, which is absolutely required in a group with both piano and guitar. Incidentally, both Sanz and Smith live in Spain, where this disc was recorded in 2007.
Blotnick’s imaginative, lyrical solos lilt forward and backward, twisting melody around and edging toward harmonic extremes — but to his credit, they’re fully connected. Unlike the many indulgent players on his instrument, he keeps focus and sticks to the point. His generous liner notes go into all sorts of detail about the personal inspiration behind his pieces. They make for interesting reading, but they’re entirely disposable when it comes to appreciating the disc on its own merits. Be absolutely sure to play Music Needs You in its hour-long entirety, not mixed and mashed on an iPod. It is a manifesto, after all, and an inspiring one at that.