Benny Reid – Escaping Shadows (2009)

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by Pico

One of the more amazing things about Pat Metheny has long been his ability to play music at it’s highest potential and, when the mood strikes him, make it entirely accessible at the same time. In that sense, he’s a modern day version of Louis Armstrong, who was the most advanced jazz musician of his time, but still appealed to wide audiences. It’s an attribute that scant few artists can pull off these days, but Benny Reid comes closer than most to achieving that, and anyone who can entice non-jazz listeners without selling out is a jazz musician we could use more of these days.

Benny Reid, by the way, is a young alto saxophonist just beginning to make a name for himself, and the title of the album he’s releasing today, Escaping Shadows alludes to that, actually. But in a sense, he’s already set himself apart, having been signed by Concord Jazz and put forth an album with them two years ago, Findings. Escaping Shadows, as Reid explains it, is part of the same creative burst from which the debut came from, with half the songs here already written before Findings was even completed. But Reid tinkered with the songs he originally shelved to flesh them out further. As a result, no composition on this album feels like filler, and many of them are killer.

To assure the best cohesion for these performances Reid used his own band to make the recordings. Joining him are Richard Padrón (guitar), Jeff Taylor (wordless vocals), Ryan Fitch (percussion), Pablo Vergara (piano, keyboards) and Dan Loomis (bass), Kenny Grohowski (drums). Even though Reid’s alto sax is unquestionably the lead voice, Padrón plays a crucial role in helping to shape that “Metheny sound,” adjusting his tone and phrasing across a broad range of styles, just as Metheny would, to fit to the character of each song, and bolstering the melody at every turn. Taylor’s lyric-less vocals plays that same melody-enhancing role, too, often following along Reid or Padrón to add heft to the main thematic lines. Like his idol, Reid is cognizant of the power of the human voice in making songs singable or hummable for even the instrumental ones, and turns even twisting melodies with irregular timekeeping into earworms.

“New Days” (see video below) is one of the many examples where Reid successfully incorporates a lot of intricate features and simultaneously make them easy on the ears, like tempo changes, key changes, contrapuntal lines with the guitar and even quick unison runs with the guitar. Some of these components borrow ideas from the PMG, but it’s also clear Reid has conceptions of his own. “The Final Chapter” employs many of the same ideas, as well as PMG’s unsurpassed ability to modulate the tempo and cadence of a song on a dime. Taylor’s wordless singing bolsters the catchy chorus.

“Sleeping Beauty” even borrows nearly all of the elements from PMG’s “The First Circle” taken from the album of nearly the same name. Reid devises the melody on his own, though, and comes up with a song that’s nearly as fresh and delightful as the one it pays homage to. “The Most Beautiful Girl I Knew” is a very personal tune for Reid, one he wrote in homage to his deceased sister, and is appropriately played directly in an acoustic jazz quartet setting, enabling Reid to caress his heartfelt ballad with care and affection (and not too much sappiness).

The title song “Escaping Shadows” can probably be considered the epic track of the collection, clocking in at about nine minutes long and situated at the back end of the CD. Like many of the songs on this album, it contains a series of related sections and passages, almost like a suite, but Grohowski’s drums and Loomis’ bass really drive it, with Loomis even taking a brief solo. The rest of the players feed off the cues those two provide, validating Reid’s decision to using players he felt a telepathic connection to. While all the songs aren’t so over-produced that couldn’t effectively be played live, “Escaping Shadows” seems especially built to be a show-stopper with all the energy and unexpected twists Reid and his crew put into this track.

Reid might be labeled “smooth jazz” by some, but if his music were truly of that variety, I would have gladly left reviewing this record to those who are enthusiasts of that type of music. Instead, he’s a serious modern jazz musician who, in his own words, strives to “create the beautiful melodies.” As incongruous as that sounds, it can be pulled off. Just look at Pat Metheny.

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