Gene Segal – Hypnotic (2009)

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Russian-born Brooklyn-raised guitarist and composer Gene Segal may have released his first album Hypnotic only this past July, but there was a lifetime of intense schooling that brought him to this point. Having earned multiple music degrees, Segal also studied under established guitarists as diverse as Scott Henderson, John Abercrombie, Vick Juris, Gene Bertoncini and Paul Meyers. He’s played in bands that ranged from rock to blues and jazz. He’s also honed his compositional skills, having developed scores for string quartets as well as big bands.

For Hypnotic, however, Segal chose organ-based groove jazz for the platform of his first effort. A straight-up soul-jazz record would have been just fine if played well, but Segal used this format to carry out his compositions that bring more to the table than merely simple, extended blues vamps. The challenge he set up for himself was to use his own pen to make something as firmly locked into a template as organ jazz and make it sound a little bit atypical, a little bit fresh. John Scofield employed this strategy about 15 years ago with Groove Elation, but most adventurous or hybridized variations of the Jimmy Smith/Jack McDuff sound tend to get labeled as acid jazz.

Segal’s more urbane approach and cleaner group interplay places his music outside of the MMW crowd. To bring out the vision of his songs, Segal went with a traditional guitar/organ/drums trio augmented on a couple of tracks by a three-piece horn section. Mike Sim handles tenor sax, Bryan Beninghove plays both tenor and soprano sax and Jonathan Powell brings the trumpet. Matt Kane mans the drums and on organ is my main man Sam Barsh. Barsh’s role is key because maintaining a smooth, head-nodding groove that augments, not competes with, the leader, and is one of his fortes.

“Red Eyes” starts Hypnotic with a slightly bent bossa nova that right off demonstrates the close musical connection between Segal and Barsh. “Hypnotic” is plodding, slowly developing funk that’s saved by the electrified horns of Sim and Powell. “Freefall” and “Quiet” are both ballads that finds Segal playing some very clean lines and Barsh comping with taste.

Running at nearly ten minutes, and yet not sounding too long, “Alef” is the centerpiece of Hypnotic. It begins with Segal’s afrobeat funk riff. After Powell blows to the groove, Segal reels off some sublime lines in the best tradition of Scofield, then bobs and weaves with the horn ensemble. But Segal wasn’t ready to go out just yet: at the seven minute mark, everyone suddenly goes quiet and the tempo is slowed down, and a key combination of chords from the theme is repeated at the end of each bar. Sim, Beninghove and Powell emerge from the relative calm to solo simultaneously, working themselves as busy as a Dixieland jazz band while Segal, Barsh and Kane’s warm vibe chugs along underneath.

“Caption Chaos” is a volatile piece, a rare free jazz explosion done in an guitar/organ/drums context, but it actually works; pity that this number ends after two minutes, that’s an avenue Segal should have explored further. The gospel styled “In The Morning” is augmented by some of the more emotionally-wrought fretwork from Segal that contrasts with Barsh’s effectively subdued notes. “Blues Again” is as advertised, a no-frills trio blues with walking bass lines provided from Barsh’s pedals. “Truth” ends the record with a heady, bar-ready funk tune, and Segal pumping out some tough lines.

Hypnotic is a nice first step for an artist who has judiciously studied his craft. On one hand, there isn’t a very distinct style that’s emerged from Segal yet, but on the other hand, the ingredients he used are undeniably good quality. A solid start, but Gene Segal’s unquenchable thirst to get better will lead to albums down the road that will be more standout.

Hypnotic comes our way via Innova Records.

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