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Album Review: Paul Asbell, 'Burmese Panther'


Published February 27, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated February 28, 2019 at 5:41 p.m.

Paul Asbell, Burmese Panther
  • Paul Asbell, Burmese Panther

(Self-released, CD, digital download)

Burlington's Paul Asbell is a state treasure. He is a guitarist of the highest caliber, accomplished across many genres but mainly focused on jazz and blues. A Chicago transplant, his musical journey has included performing with numerous legends. After a recent trilogy of what he termed "steel string Americana" albums, Asbell has taken a hard pivot back to jazz on his latest LP, Burmese Panther.

This was not a whimsical move. The album represents years of work and preparation. The results are nothing short of amazing, a potent set that sounds like a million bucks. While the vibe is often serenely laid back, the takes here are absolutely cooking.

That's thanks to a top-notch cast of 802 players. Clyde Stats and Gabriel Jarrett anchor the rhythm on bass and drums, respectively. Tom Cleary fills things out with piano and Hammond organ. The horn section is equally VIP: Chris Peterman, Michael Zsoldos, Jake Whitesell, Ray Vega and Dave Ellis all pitch in, and Asbell makes the most of their talents.

With such an experienced cast, excellence is a given. The real revelation of Burmese Panther turns out to be Asbell's considerable gifts as a composer and arranger. These are flat-out gorgeous songs with the potential to become standards themselves. Particular standouts are the angular workout "Ambidextrous" and the lonesome-sounding "Eeyore's Lament."

Asbell's arrangements are relentlessly creative, drawing on every trick he's learned across his 50 years as a sideman and giving his players ample room to shine — and not just during their solos. His songs breathe and evolve, earning every second of the album's long run time.

Making jazz sound this effortless and spontaneous actually takes a lot of time and sweat. While these tracks are meticulously charted, every song evokes the feel of friends having a conversation — a couple thousand weeknight gigs past merely "tight." That means the record hides a lot to unpack. It's an album you can put on repeat for hours.

In fact, that was pretty much my weekend, listening to Burmese Panther over and over, and I don't regret a moment of it. The album is stuffed with ideas that offer a broad tour of the genre. Asbell draws on so many eras and sounds that the album's feel is timeless, a space where Django Reinhardt and George Benson can trade licks. While this is a guitar-centric album, and his axe sings more fiercely than ever, Asbell is a restrained and generous bandleader. This is pure jazz.

Asbell is at the top of his game right now. Fans of the genre owe it to themselves to check out Burmese Panther — and, of course, to see this ensemble live. In the meantime, this LP is a sublime way to stay warm at home.

Burmese Panther is available on Spotify. Asbell performs on Wednesday, February 27, at Leunig's Bistro & Café in Burlington, and celebrates the album's release on Sunday, March 3, at Zenbarn in Waterbury Center.