Troy Roberts – Nu-Jive 5 (2013)

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Like Linda Oh, Troy Roberts’ journey from Perth, Australia to New York City has left a trail of awards and accolades in his wake and one gets the sense he’s just getting started. And yet, Nu-Jive 5, due next week, will be his fifth album.

Australian native and tenor saxophonist Roberts has a wide, low tone and an acrobatic articulation that’s so rhythmically aware; it’s apparent that to him, harmony and rhythm are joined at the hip. Downbeat was impressed enough to bestow four consecutive Jazz Soloist awards on him, and he made it to the final round of the 2008 Thelonious Monk saxophone competition (the one that Jon Irabagon won). He’s got a real modern approach that’s a progression from Michael Brecker’s, and it’s easily identifiable even when he’s playing old jazz standards. But there’s not much “standard” about Nu-Jive 5.

Nu-Jive 5 follows 2011’s Nu-Jive (an album that even got our resident uber-picky fusion fan Mark Saleski fired up), retaining bassist Eric England, drummer David Chiverton and keyboardist Silvano Monasterios, and adding guitarist Tim Jago to make the quartet a quintet. Like the earlier record, 5 is nominally electric funk-jazz, but that might be simplifying it a bit, because funk-jazz is typically only concerned about the groove and some chops and not much else. Roberts does care about those things, too, but he also minds the things that tend to make the music sound interesting after many listens. His arrangements and songs structures are way, way too advanced for smooth jazz. Think the original Jeff Lorber Fusion or a funkier version of Steve Smith’s Vital Information.

We learn right away from the opener “Convertible Burt” that Roberts likes layered harmonics and rhythms, but also likes to make it sound fun. He makes even doing scales sound fun by setting it to some hip-hip beat at the beginning of the song. Soon all manners of cool counter rhythms and counter melodies pop up, before breaking open into more like old school funk and before you know it, Monasterios is soloing on electric piano like Herbie Hancock. Roberts leverage unison lines frequently to make sure no one is missing the thematic lines, no matter how slippery they are. He doubled up with Monasterios on “Burt” and pairs with Jago for “Night On The Town” as England offers up an alternative line before going into a comely solo.

“One Day Wonder” boasts a bass line intertwined with the thematic sax line over shifty rhythmic terrain. Over this extended tune, there’s also a more relaxed groove section with sophisticated chord progression, and Roberts is blowing out lots of Brecker-isms but with his own twists to them. Meanwhile, England’s bass lines are bouncy as the song reaches a crescendo near the end with a tense, combustible drum solo from Chiverton. “Mono Stereos” is full of odd time signatures but it’s all funky. Monasterios delivers his best keyboard solo of the album here, which is followed by Roberts showing off immense improvisational skills himself with a meaty, soulful tone.

And just when most albums begin to peter out, Roberts is stepping on the gas. “CasaEnglewood” gets established by an insistent bass/drums pulse that Roberts soon piles on an attractive riff. Others would have kept it strictly about that rift and made a whole song about it, but Roberts reaches out beyond that and complements with other melodic developments. “Stoner” has one cool idea after another: a drum ‘n’ bass groove opens up a nice vamp, with which Robert doubles up with Jago, then doubles with England on another thread, trading fours with Jago. The song traverses shifting moods until it peaks with four way soloing, with only England’s bass and Monasterios’ rhythm keys holding the song together. Whack jazz breaking out within funk jazz is like a dream come true to me.

Roberts never seems to be mailing it in and thusly there are no filler on this record. He combines an old feel with inspiration from fresh sources, and then throws in enough creases to give the music depth and lasting attractiveness. This is the rare fusion jazz record that excels in all facets of fusion.

Nu-Jive 5 will go on sale March 5. Visit Troy Roberts’ website for more info.

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