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Laugh and Jangle

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On their fourth release, this Boston sextet lays out a relaxing jazz set. The band's songs, often written in challenging time signatures, betray a variety of global influences -- particularly in the percussion, provided by Bertram Lehmann and Norm Bergeron, which draws subtly from Afro-cuban and Brazilian rhythms. This gives the music a complex background that, if it wasn't so laid back, would be a seething, roiling mass of energy. Carl Clements (saxophone/flute) and Eric Johnson (guitar) dominate much of the melodic content, and as such tend to have the most significant solos. Clements' style harkens back to early jazz by emphasizing the melodic variation of the piece's central theme rather than using it as a starting point to be abandoned. This results in spare yet friendly runs. Johnson provides a pleasant contrast to Clements soothing style by offering more adventurous solo turns. With a clean, precise sound, Johnson's fretwork is similar to Pat Metheny's, albeit without all the toys. Like Metheny, Johnson fills the music with reassuring, confident melodies.

The music is fleshed out by the other members of the rhythm section, Ben Cook (piano/keyboards) and Joshua Davis (bass). Cook often hovers in the background, using his instrument more to accentuate than to articulate. One notable exception is a cover of Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Guinnevere", in which Cook provides a moving duet with Clements' tenor saxophone while the rest of the group slowly introduces the main melody of the original. This track also gives Davis a chance to shine by highlighting his artfully bowed bass.

The band's clean-cut style is epitomized by "Crosscurrent", which slowly builds to a romantic climax. Combining a familiar melody with expertly placed accents, the band works as a whole to build the track up over its eleven minutes. This yields intriguing sub-plots and a gratifying resolution tailor made for posh, open-air dining. At the same time, however, "Crosscurrent" reveals the disc's biggest drawback: it is a bit too slick. The overproduced sound can push the band a bit too close to Muzak territory. "North March" suffers from this a bit more than the other tracks. Here, Clements' solo sounds like something from a Kenny G record: spotless, but heartless. As a result, there are moments when this disc makes downright embarrassing listening.

Nevertheless, the band can cut loose, and does so on "Stop & Go". Here, Clements' saxophone is more aggressive, invoking the bluster and brilliance of Charlie. Johnson also changes his approach, utilizing a dirtier, bluesier style comparable to John Scofield's work. This hints at a more adventurous, less commercial sound that I hope the band indulges on future recordings. In any case, despite its shortcomings, Rituals displays a group with chops and vision.

-- Ron Davies
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