Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Glen Ackerman: The Glenious Inner Planet (2010)

Jazz is always at its most interesting when it looks to the future – or even when it sounds like it’s coming from the future – and bassist Glen Ackerman’s latest release, The Glenious Inner Planet, looks and, more importantly, sounds as if it might have been sent back in time from the 23rd century. Or maybe it was sent forward in time from some 1960s sci-fi movie. In either case, this CD offers all the quirks, surprises, and hilarity you could want in a collection of music that is most recognizably classified as jazz. It’s jazz, yes, but Ackerman’s Planet, doesn’t exactly keep a close orbit around a center of gravity that is straight-ahead-and-in-the-pocket. This music is far out – as in, intergalactic.
Opening with a reworking of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” – not exactly a straightforward tune, with its eccentric time signature, Ackerman switches the instrumentation around – substituting guitar for piano, soprano sax for alto – and he turns the choruses into a searing succession of solos. Chris Cortez rips into his solo with a wild series of guitar acrobatics, and Ackerman slaps and pops his solo on the electric bass (his usual axe) in a most audacious way. By the song’s last note, the tune has been completely reworked, and Ackerman actually chooses to retitle the tune “Blue Rondo a la Raad,” which I believe may be a reference to a certain type of missile found most often in some parts of the Middle East. It’s a confident move, but he’s earned it.
The next tune, “There is a drop of Roppongi on my shorts,” is a fairly easy to follow number, constructed as it is around a reliable vamp, and it offers strong playing from Paul Chester on guitar, Joel Fulgum on drums, Woody Witt on sax, and, naturally, Ackerman, who manages to solo memorably on the groove without falling into a rut or losing his way. “Inner Planet” is a loosely structured, textural composition held down by tight work from the drum and bass while the guitar, sax, and keyboard (Ted Wenglinski) go exploring. “Khalil,” as well, is a atmospheric piece taken at a slow tempo and in a mode that evokes the exotic -- all the more so for the shimmering piano work and lyrical clarinet throughout. Ackerman’s work on the acoustic bass on this song is especially strong, as he employs the percussive capacity of the instrument to free the drummer to investigate the sparkling sounds of the cymbals.
We return to an angular but swinging groove with “Potato Wagon,” which features my favorite solo from guitarist Chester, Ackerman’s funk chops on full display, and the strongest ensemble playing on the entire CD. After all that sweating, it’s perfectly acceptable to slow things down with a ballad, especially one as charming as “. . .this lontano i.” a tune that, with the sharp simplicity of its melody, is all the more memorable for the suspended chords that underpin the song and inspired solos from Witt, Chester, and Wenglinski.
The influence of Dave Brubeck is felt on “The Thing, and the thing that makes The Thing,” which lilts along in what feels like a 5/4 time signature, only to offer shades of the prog-rock band Yes in some of its instrumental back and forth, with work on guitar and bass that would make Steve Howe and Chris Squire proud. This rock dynamic is even more evident on the gleefully herky-jerky “4 is a Feeling,” which you might just feel compelled to get up and dance to, only to find yourself inexplicably skipping through the song’s phrasing. “The Angel of the Odd,” which closes the album, builds around a thorny four-bar phrase carried forward by all the players at one point or another to the song’s midpoint, which pauses for an interval, only to have the song resume its happy trudge, this time to the outer limits of everyone’s musical imagination, then fading into whimsical oblivion.
At its best – and there are many good moments – The Glenious Inner Planet will remind listeners of Miles Davis in his pre-comeback fusion years, of Weather Report, and even of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Ackerman’s strength as a musician is not so much in his playing – and he is a fine player – but as a composer. For all the thoroughly enjoyable flash and fun of this release, each song is also written around very clear and interesting ideas, and Ackerman, one suspects, is wise enough to back off on his playing and let his writing speak for itself. So, kids, get your space helmet polished and stock up on Tang and powdered eggs – it’s time to fire up the spaceship and chart a course for that inner planet called Glenious.
Glen Ackerman – bass
Joel Fulgum & JD Guzman – drums
Paul Chester & Chris Cortez – guitar
Ted Wenglinski – keyboards
Woody Witt – tenor and soprano saxes, clarinet
1 Blue Rondo a la Raad
2 There is a drop of Roppongi on my shorts.
3 Inner Planet
4 Khalil
5 Potato Wagon
6 ...this lontano i.
7 The Thing, and the thing that makes the thing the Thing
8 4 is a Feeling
9 The Angel of the Odd