Monday, July 30, 2012

Review: Plugged In – Jerome Sabbagh

I’ve been curious about the sax player, Jerome Sabbagh, for a while now.  Then I caught an interview with him on the Jazz Session website, talking about his new recording, Plugged In.  I figured this was enough of a sign to lead me to check out Plugged In.

Apparently, Sabbagh usually plays with acoustic groups, and some heavy hitters, too: e.g. Ben Monder, Daniel Humair, Paul Motian.  So Plugged In was a departure for him, since he employed an electronic keyboardist, Jozef Dumoulin, and an electric bassist, Patrice Blanchard; in fact, it was hearing one of Dumoulin’s recordings (“Trees Are Always Right”) that inspired Sabbagh to do this project.  His drummer for this recording was Rudy Royston, who we already encountered and were impressed by on J.D. Allen’s Victory recording.  But in his interview on the Jazz Session, Sabbagh said he still wanted to keep an open, acoustic feel for the recording, something which I think he succeeded in doing.
“Drive” begins Plugged In with a mid-tempo.  This first cut has Sabbagh playing well with a low-key, laid-back improvisational style and a very good sound.  Sabbagh sounds a lot like Stan Getz, especially in the upper register, though his style of improvising is very different.  (Sabbagh plays only tenor sax on Plugged In.)  On this cut, Dumoulin solos on a synthesizer tuned like a distorted electric guitar.  After his solo, he plays with the group on a spacy electric piano.  “Special K” is a slower, funkier tune.  Dumoulin solos first on distorted electric piano, sort of like Chick Corea on “Light as a Feather” (an oldie but goodie).  Sabbagh again solos in his solid, laid-back style.  “Aisha” is a slow tune, and Sabbagh starts with a pretty, meandering solo.  Dumoulin’s keyboard provides a nice atmosphere but isn’t very compelling.  “Jeli” is a mid-tempo, bouncier tune with a Latin feel, a little like Rollins’s “St. Thomas.”  Demoulin again plays synthesizer with a distorted guitar sound.  His soloing is very slick here, though, unfortunately, it’s broken up by passages where he plays in unison with Sabbagh. 

“Ronny” is another slow tune.  Sabbagh affects his airiest, breathiest tone here.  This cut is just a free-form duet between Sabbagh and Demoulin.  “Walk 6” begins with Sabbagh soloing over Metheney-esque chord changes, the cut ending with a simple melody played over the changes.  “Ur” is an upper mid-tempo, driving tune that has Sabbagh and Demoulin playing the melody in unison.  Sabbagh then plays one of his strongest solos of the recording, freely ranging all over his tenor.  Royston finally gets to step out a bit, playing a nice solo.  He continues his energetic playing while Sabbagh and Demoulin play the melody to end the cut.  “Minor” is a slow, bluesy, noir-ish tune, with a dragging Royston beat.  “Rider” is a pretty, brisk waltz.  Sabbagh’s tone is very much like Stan Getz on his solo.  Demoulin solos on electric piano with a slight reverb, very much like early Chick Corea.  “Rider” is one of the strongest tunes on the album.  “Boulevard Carnot” is a brief, impressionist interlude, with Sabbagh and Demoulin playing in duet. 
“City Dawn” has a slowish mid tempo.  Sabbagh plays very well here.  I think Sabbagh plays better on mid-tempo tunes, having a greater opportunity to ponder and try different things.  On “Walk 3 bis,” Demoulin lays down a mysterioso blanket of background sound over which Sabbagh solos loosely.  “Kasbah” is an upper mid-tempo tune with a slight tango feel.  Sabbagh solos briefly against an ostinato background.  “Slow Rock Ballad” starts out with some chaotic but gentle free form playing from the group.  But it indeed moves into a sort of slow rock ballad, though it’s hard to discern a definite melody here.  Sabbagh plays the only solo of the cut, though it’s a good, rambling effort.  On the version of Plugged In I downloaded, an extra cut was included, titled “Milonga,” a slow tune (nothing like a true, fast-paced Argentinian milonga song).  Here Dumoulin plays straight electric piano, and Sabbagh noddles around against the slow background to end the recording.

Overall, Plugged In is almost like a lighter, more pop-music-oriented version of Chick Corea’s early Return to Forever group (the one with Joe Farrell and Airto Moreira).  At points it has a feel similar to the pop group Zero 7 (a group I like very much).  Sabbagh is a good soloist with a Stan Getz kind of sound, though he uses less vibrato and his phrasing is more impressionistic, laid back, and rambling; also, he tends to stay in the mid-register of the horn and away from the altissimo. 
I didn’t connect with this recording as much as with, say, J.D. Allen’s “Victory,” which we previously reviewed, and I’m not sure why.  Both Allen and Sabbagh are good improvisers with a good sound.  I think it might be because Allen has more intensity and sense of progression in his playing, while Sabbagh tends to stay at a constant, low key level without a clear narrative to his solos.  This could be said of the music generally on the two recordings; while there’s a fair amount of variety in the tunes on Plugged In, the music stays pretty much at one level, while there’s more ebb and flow and tension and release on Victory.  Also, it must be said that there is nowhere near the amount of group interplay on Plugged in that there is on Victory.  Plugged In is really a Sabbagh and Demoulin show, with Blanchard and Royston very much in the background; Victory had nearly equal contributions from all members of the trio, with the rhythm players more seamlessly worked into the music rather than just being background.  For me, Plugged In is a nice but not totally satisfying recording.  Having heard Plugged In, I’m curious to hear Sabbagh’s recording of jazz standards, One Two Three, to see how he handles strong tunes that he probably knows like the back of his hands.  Of course, we have lots of other artists to review before we double back on Jerome Sabbagh, though his playing on Plugged In certainly makes him deserving of another listen.

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