Tom Gates, perhaps best known for his pan work with the Beach Boys, is trying to do for the steel drum on Comfort Zone what Steve Turre did for the conch some two decades ago: Move it into the jazz mainstream.
He just might have done it, too, though there is a limit to the instrument’s range through the more contemplative end of the emotional spectrum. Still, as he reinterprets a series of key covers, while offering his own smart set of originals with a crack group of sidemen, you quickly begin to see the steel drum in an entirely new light.
Opening with the Chick Corea composition “Amando’s Rumba,” Comfort Zone quickly settles into the friendly, but not entirely unexpected, island vibe. Gates encircles the theme with a lilting jubilance, while do-anything drummer Steve Gadd adds only a crisp whisper on the brushes.
“Icarus” is given darker, low-tide tones courtesy of bassist Glen Fisher, even as Gadd slows his cadence to a winking saunter. But Gates’ instrument, for all of its deep rhythmic complexity, is like the banjo in that its capacity for pathos is limited. Everything he plays sounds like a splash, like a giggle, like a frozen concoction. By the end, this song has become not a rumination, but a moment of happy reverie. Similarly, “Armadillo Barbados,” the Bill Frisell composition, boasts a bouncy, reggae-inspired lilt, while their take on Joe Zawinul’s “Birdland” becomes this light-filled romp.
Then there’s “Connect the Dots,” a Gates original that explores this deeper R&B vibe courtesy of Fisher and Gadd – the latter of whom has appeared on countless recordings, from Steely Dan to Eric Clapton. As they move into moodier, groovier places, there’s finally room for Gates to more fully transcend our expectations about his instrument. Make no mistake, it still sounds helplessly, gloriously blissful, but Gates polyrhythmic facility injects this splashes of fizzy surprise across the length of “Dots.”
Similarly, the title track, with its intoxicating ebb and flow, gives Gates a chance to work in a romantically connective tandem with Peter Sprague. “Mouna Baya,” co-written by Jean-Luc Ponty, finds Gadd leading the rhythm section through a skipping cadence that recalls the drummer’s old boss Paul Simon and his culture-blending world music experiments of 25 years ago. Sprague’s guitar solo and then Fisher’s thrumming bass trickle along like fish in a fast-moving stream, even as the song’s boisterous rhythms course in and around every riff.
Gates is joined by James “JT” Taylor on triple guitar pans for a ruminative take on “Poinciana,” the Cuban folk song that later became a hit jazz single for Ahmad Jamal. Together, they create something that has the sumptuous atmospherics a beachfront sunset. Gates is then joined for “Pan in A Minor” by both Taylor and acclaimed pan player Othello Molineaux, but with a completely different result. Here, we are transported to a bustling sun-baked city street, with sounds and sights flashing by a dizzying pace.
Perhaps the most easily understood choice here is actually “Sunday Morning,” though it arrives courtesy of the Maroon 5 songbook. Gates, who once so easily meshed on the Al Jardine-penned tune “Island Girl” from the Beach Boys 1989 release Still Cruisin’, finds a similarly well-proportioned opportunity to shine. This pop confection already sounded like a long-hoped-for kiss, and Gates’ instrument, if anything, only adds to the tune’s innate sense of star-struck passion.
“Wild Card,” the final Gates original, swerves back toward a more measured sense of buoyant delight, sounding not so much head over heels, as quietly satisfied. The track’s locomotive cadence works in a nice contrast, allowing Gates to create a sense of back story. He concludes with a fleet take on Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup,” playing with a propulsion and sharp sense of timing that leaves little doubt that his instrument can hold its own in any setting – jazz or otherwise.
Just don’t expect to come away without a smile on your face. This is the sound of unfettered joy.