Sung Jo – Dream (2011)

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Sung Jo leads a quartet on Dream that walks a fine line — pushing at the edges of the jazz envelope, yet still swinging like crazy. The result is an album that has both narrative logic and these splashes of new sounds.

The Houston, Texas-based guitarist begins working in perfect tandem with tenor saxophonist Woody Witt, performing as if joined at the hip on “Remember,” the first of eight originals. Drummer Hayden Hamilton and bassist Bill Vonderhaar provide only the lightest, most discreet accompaniment as Sung Jo begins a solo filled with this stirring amount of space. Sung Jo is unafraid to let what he doesn’t play communicate as much as what he, in fact, does.

Not that he keeps quiet for long, though. Over the course of “Remember” — and, indeed, this whole Dream project — Sung Jo shows both a flair for the familiar riffy brilliance of Wes Montgomery, but also the soaring rock-influenced runs of Bill Frisell … and then everything in between.

Witt takes a more prominent role initially on the subsequent “Heavy Rain,” playing with a curling romanticism as Vonderhaar plucks happily away at the bass. Sung Jo is so supportive as to almost disappear in the warm waves of Witt’s performance. When he finally emerges, well into the song, his tone has quieted into an emotional echo of Pat Metheny. That leads to Sung Jo’s title track, a billowing cloud of cool-jazz melancholy. Hamilton’s subtly conceived drum signature providing only the loosest of structures as the guitarist performs with a searching quietude.

“Schizophrenic,” rather than settling for something frenetic, instead finds Sung Jo and Witt again opening with a meticulously designed duet. They then take turns that are earthy and smartly reflective. Sung Jo returns to a tone that’s more directly influenced by rock music, though he never stumbles into cliché. Hamilton, meanwhile, ramps up into a propulsive din — pushing everyone to greater insights.

The swinging “Delusion” opens the door for an impressive blowing session, as Witt and Vonderhaar set things up with an opening stanza that is commanding and yet smooth as oak. Sung Jo continues to push his core sound — experimenting with a faster, higher register, but never letting go of his core ebullience. When Witt returns, he matches Sung Jo stride for stride, but without sounding blustery of hollow. “No One,” a track that starts with this hushed wit, goes even further to illustrate the canny concentration and edgy musical questing that gives Dream so much intrigue. Sung Jo begins his turn by playing with a furious abandon. Then, after unleashing a flurry of notes, the guitarist then hits a funky groove midway through his solo — opening the door for a smoky, R&B-infused solo by Witt.

Vonderhaar opens “Lie Awake” on a thudding, mysterious note, before being joined by Sung Jo’s lyrically dramatic, Miles Davis-inspired signature. Vonderhaar then holds that determined rhythmic line as Witt soars in, playing with a tough ambition. Hamilton’s role here is primarily to provide accents, the occasional rumble on the toms or cymbal wash. That adds even more turbulence to Witt’s virtuoso conclusion — giving the tune suspense, tension and then finally release.

“March 5th,” the closing tune on Dream, again makes use of a skipping bass line from Vonderharr, but the rest of the quartet quickly joins in — with Sung Jo playing a keyboard-like double line with Witt. As the saxophonist begins his own muscular variations, Sung Jo plays with a series of interesting abstractions — strumming, then letting the sound decay away; blurting out one-note comments. When he finally takes his turn, though, Sung Jo’s tone has become more insistent, more emotionally direct. He plays with a thorny aggression, echoing Witt’s attitude and then expanding from there.

The track serves as a fiery conclusion to an album of expressionistic, but never overbearing perseverance. Sung Jo and Co. continually push themselves toward new thoughts and new voicings on Dream, combining influences and then making those ideas their own. The results are as listenable as they are intriguing.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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