Groove55 – A la Carte (2012)

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Groove55 sustains both interest and delight over the course of the terrific A la Carte through intelligent interplay and a deft ability to confound expectations.

That starts with the musical symbiosis found within this Canadian band, which has worked over the years with Oliver Jones, Gregory Charles and Zachary Richard. While so much of smooth jazz can sound like concurrent riffs being played alongside one another, this quartet takes a collective, far more engaging approach. This allows them to explore the edges of the genre, adding new textures and influences, without ever coming unmoored.

Take the opening track called “Skyline,” which seems to work off a smooth-jazz template before becoming the first of several showcases for saxophonist Yves Adam. His sound recalls the 1980s-era neo-funk records produced by David Sanborn – deceptively complex, in that they are so musical, but also possessing the ability to cut sharp circles around his bandmates. Suddenly, a track that starts out feeling very familiar becomes something else entirely in the hands of Adam, a graduate of McGill’s in jazz performance.

Keyboardist Jacques Mignault, first heard in a quick burst of wit amidst Adam’s lengthy solo on “Skyline,” occupies more of the spotlight on the lightly grooved “Desert Moon.” Mignault’s playing is, by turns, delicate and impellent, something that gives the track an intriguing narrative push – illustrating all over again why he claimed the inaugural grand prize in the Roland synthesizer music contest, judged by the late jazz giant Oscar Peterson. When Adam returns to tangle with Mignault on a series of patterns midway through the track, the pianist responds with a splash of extraordinary runs – matching the sax step for step. “Desert Moon” eventually settles into a funky shuffle on its way out, giving the track a deepening soul-jazz feel.

Mignault then switches to an acoustic piano for “Tie Silk,” opening with a ruminative trill before switching to a Rhodes sound that recalls so many great mainstream improvisational recordings from the 1970s. Mignault, who studied alongside Art Roberts at Montreal’s Concordia University, avoids that era’s attendant bombast, though, offering a sequence of creatively restrained thoughts. Groove55’s often understated rhythm section, featuring Yves Nadeau on bass and Daniel Lemay at the drums, play with a twilight sense of light and dark shadings. A brilliant track.

Then, just like that, Nadeau and Lemay come alive for “Hip Trip,” providing a bustling tempo that recalls train stops whizzing by. Lemay, winner of the 1985 Individual Championship of Quebec in snare drum, is particularly impressive. He plays with an aggressive determination, but never loses control. That gives Adam a chance to shine, as he again creates a smoky, late-night R&B atmosphere – then proceeds to dissemble that friendly vibe through a succession of bop-ish changes.

If “Live That Dream” doesn’t do enough to break out of its own amiable, but well-established clichés, the scuffed-up R&B of “Double Click” more than makes up for it. Punctuated by a slapping bass signature from Nadeau, a well-known veteran of the Montreal jazz scene, this track is perhaps this project’s best recombination of Cannonball Adderley and Spyro Gyra – one part grease-popping soul, another part smooth-as-silk crossover appeal. “Changing Lanes” holds a similar allure, as Groove55 blend in the brightly swinging pop sheen of David Foster-era Chicago.

They aren’t finished experimenting: “Balladero” begins with a militaristic rhythm signature from Lemay, before Adam and Mignault return with a honeyed melancholy – working in direct contrast with that marching portent. “Cat Games” finds the band alternatively swaying with real conviction, then stopping on a dime to let these hushed improvisations play out.

“Riverside” isn’t an update of the famous gospel-inspired jazz standard “Down by the Riverside,” but rather a set piece for another round of compact, uncommonly lyrical solos – first from Adam, then Mignault and finally Adam again – giving the often propulsive A la Carte a sweetly romantic send off.

Thoughtful when it needs to be, fun when it ought to be, Groove55 shows a lively and very memorable range.

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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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