Across 10 original tracks, all but one of which is an instrumental, West Philadelphia keyboardist Jawanza Kobie crafts a layered, deeply enjoyable amalgam on the new release Feels Better Than It Sounds. Kobie, who was mentored by Grady Tate and toured with both Billy Paul and his own 30-piece jazz/funk big band, works in a similarly varied color palette – mixing and matching styles with ease.
“Monk” opens with a twinkling sense of promise, as Kobie creates a gently undulating soundscape for guitarist Buddy Fambro to navigate. Fambro’s personable grooves work in tandem with the track’s easy-going swing, courtesy of drummer Webb Thomas, bassist Lee W. Smith and percussionist Leonard “Doc” Gibbs. Kobie allows Fambro plenty of room to roam, before joining the proceedings with a quietly ruminative solo on piano. When Fambro returns, it’s with a fiery new determination, riffing with the smart propulsion of Wes Montgomery at his best.
With the addition of trumpeter Dwight Sutton, “A Pineapple Between Us” quickly ramps up into the kind of fleet pop jazz that marked Miles Davis’ 1980s output. Terry Thompson then adds a shuddering counterpoint on alto, even as Kobie stirs in these thrilling flourishes. Finally, there’s Fambro – who switches to a more fusion-focused electric guitar sound, rocking as hard as he does anywhere on Feels Better Than It Sounds. “The Dancer” downshifts into a more contemplative trio, though Kobie, Smith and Thomas never slip off into a sleepy vibe. Smith’s angular and always active bass lines – this time, on an acoustic – make sure of that. Eventually, Kobie matches Smith’s flinty verve, and the track’s second half begins to rattle along with a new sense of propulsion.
Smith remains on the upright for “Webb T’s Blues,” which unfolds with the melancholy stoicism of Wynton Marsalis’ early work. Thompson returns on the alto sax, while Sutton switches to flugelhorn – offering some of his most elongated, emotional thoughts. Meanwhile, Thomas plays with a thunderous portent, adding these thrillingly dark shadings to everything. Guitarist Bruce Middle and bassist Dexter Sims accompany Kobie and Thomas for “Can’t Take the News,” as the horns drop out. At its beginning, there is an easy-going Americana vibe – hinting at Bill Frisell’s more recent offerings – before Kobie’s roiling piano signature opens the door for a scorching, blues-rock-inflected series of runs by Middle. Kobie then adds his own boisterous, synthesized retorts, before “Can’t Take the News” returns to its idyllic opening refrain – almost like someone closing the newspaper, with all of its troubling revelations, only to find the comfort of home all around.
“A Good Day” begins with a piano figure not unlike a nostalgia-filled side from Vince Guaraldi before Kobie is joined by Thompson, this time on soprano. Thomas’ perfectly placed cadence is augmented by Gibb’s busy but never frenetic percussive flourishes. “They’ll Only Remember What You Do,” the project’s lone vocal feature, showcases the brawny romanticism of singer Deveron Patterson. Kobie, Thomas, Smith and Thompson are accompanied by guitarist David P. Stevens and background vocalist Karen Domino White.
There’s an appropriately diaphanous feel to the intro “Rare Bird Ballet,” as Kobie works again with Gibbs, Smith and Thomas. Gibbs begins by adding these majestically trickling waves of sound on a variety of percussion instruments. Soon, however, Kobie has caught a frisky groove, and begins unfurling these groove-focused lines straight out of Ahmad Jamal’s playbook. “Night Shift,” though its intro is marred by some tacked-on crowd noise to give the tune an in-concert feel, eventually rights itself on the strength of Middle’s Pat Metheny-esque passages.
Finally, there’s the undulating “Carnival de la Samba,” which finds Fambro returning to the guitar chair. The core group of Kobie, Thomas, Sims and Gibbs mostly lay back, building a coiled tension. Kobie adds some synthesized strings, but the track primarily unfolds as a showcase for Fambro, who ends things with a gorgeous flourish.