Vermont guitarist Steve Blair is one of the most technically accomplished players in the Green Mountain jazz scene. He's performed with fusion titans Freefall and Science Fixion, and is currently the director of jazz studies at Johnson State College. Blair's latest disc, Momentum, provides a good example of his exacting musicality.
Blair has assembled a fine cast for this outing, including pianist Joe Davidian, bassists Ari Folman-Cohen and Bu Mantle, drummer Gabe Jarrett and a horn section composed of Alex Wolston, Lee Gillies and George Voland.
The nine songs on the album are Blair originals, and they each showcase his considerable skills. What they lack, however, is passion. Although the melodies and rhythms are sophisticated, the music sounds more like the product of the intellect than the spirit.
Instrumental athleticism is fine for fusion, but most of the tunes on Momentum could be classified as straight-up jazz. Though there's little in the way of spark, the playing is solid across the board. It's fun to hear Jarrett slice up time, and Davidian is a master of tonal shading. Blair's licks are full of kinetic agility.
Standout cuts include the title track, which features burly bass and active horn lines. The song's main figure makes excellent use of harmonic tension, giving it an edge not found on other cuts. Also noteworthy is "The Labyrinth," which features slippery phrasing and a complex groove. Here, Blair's instrumental mastery is revealed with a solo that expertly navigates the song's serpentine progression.
Other tracks fail to make much of an impact. "Odds or Evens," for example, sounds more like an exercise in jazz composition than an actual piece of art. The solos are diligent but antiseptic, the accents impersonal in their clarity. "Red Blues" is likewise perfunctory. The band sounds like it's trying hard to break free of the airtight arrangement, but never manages to do so.
Blair is a proficient composer, arranger and soloist, but his work could use a bit more grit. Tidiness is fine, but sometimes you gotta get your hands dirty.