Brad MYERS & Michael SHARFE – Sanguinaria (Hopefulsongs) – Colloquy 13214, 59:49 (1/30/17) ****½:
(Brad Myers – guitar/ Michael Sharfe – doublebass/ Dan Dorff Jr. – drums/ Tom Buckley – drums/ Marc Wolfley – percussion/ Dan Karlsberg – melodica)
Outstanding arrangements for guitar & bass duo rooted in classic jazz and midwestern Americana aesthetic.
The new release Sanguinaria (Hopefulsongs) by well-established Cincinnati musicians Brad Myers and Michael Sharfe makes an immediate visual impression. A perfectly-rendered botanical illustration of the bloodroot plant is framed on the lower half of all six panels of the fold-out sleeve. On the cover, the subterranean root emerges into leaf and flower. Dabs of watercolor and a couple of industrious ants add detail. It is among the most striking images I have ever seen on a CD and is suggestive of a special artistic care and purpose. Mr. Myers explains in the liner notes the choice of the image as a metaphor for the duo format. “The plant sometimes produces a rare double flower… and when pierced or broken, it bleeds a reddish sap, which accounts for its Latin name.” There are multiple meanings here – that which is hidden, nourished over time, vulnerable to destruction, productive of beauty and surprise –any of which can connect to the multifarious meanings of the jazz art form.
The affirmation of “roots” is ably demonstrated on two classic tunes, Line for Lyons and Waltz New by Gerry Mulligan and Jim Hall respectively. Myers unadorned hollow-body guitar sound is old-school, as is his modest rhetoric, while Michael Sharfe is authoritative on the doublebass. In stating the melody of Line for Lyons he sounds uncommonly like the late Red Mitchell. The rapport between the instruments is spot-on. The attention to harmonic nuance, gentle swing and perfectly executed chord melody treatment of this timeless theme all contribute to make this a very handsome arrangement. Waltz New, a most challenging chart, is a seminar in counterpoint and unison timing.
New Moon, a modest tune by Steve Cardenas, adds a drummer. The tune asserts little but is utterly captivating with upwardly-inflected melodic phrases which seem to indicate questions. So steady is the duo in its slow walk that the drummer feels no time-keeping obligations and concentrates instead on melodic brush splashes on the cymbals.
The drums stay on for Norm’s Ridge which is (as stated by Myers in the liner notes) a tribute to the Pat Metheny of Bright Size Life era. Strumming acoustic guitar supports a triplet-happy spiraling melody on electric guitar that could have been cribbed from any number of Metheny solos. If it is hopefulness that we are in need of, this Midwestern Americana vibe offers a durable source of inspiration. The extroversion of the piece is nicely balanced by tinge of sadness; the tall-grass prairie has been plowed under, and middle America has lost its way.
If the album has been moving with patience of a root toward a flowering, this occurs in the seventh track, which is surely the highlight of a very fine record. On Country, a tune by Keith Jarrett, the guitar sits out and Mr. Sharfe trusts the four strings of his magnificent and very well-recorded instrument to express the pastoral implications of the melody. There is no strain or willed virtuosity, but technique is perfectly matched to communication. At 2:44 the essay is way too short; we are left astonished and bereft.
Mr. Sharfe makes up for his abbreviated performance on the following Falling Grace by Steve Swallow with a very fine solo. By now we are quite sure that this bassist should be honored far beyond his native Cincinnati and hope that this CD will introduce audiences to this outstanding musician.
There is more percussion than I would like on the last third of the record, but the interplay of guitar and bass remains on the highest level. Great Pumpkin Waltz by Vince Guaraldi is a rare tune and a good one. In Your Own Sweet Way is the most modern-sounding tune of the set. Myers runs the harmonic obstacle course, never losing track of the time, ably supported by a cheerful drummer and the stalwart quarter notes of the bass. Appropriately, the bass has the final solo, and it is a good one.
The odd piece out on the record is the title track Sanguinaria. A peculiar melodic shape to begin with, it is made stranger by the use of what is referred to on the liner notes as the “guitar bongo.” Added to this extraneous bongoing is a melodica, which sounds like a wheezing harmonica. Perhaps this can be seen in botanical terms as a “sport” — “an unexpected production which celebrates a playful randomness in nature.” In any case, the track allows one to say that one has heard, if not seen, the fabled guitar bongo. Setting aside this title track which only fails by comparison to the high standard of the rest of the album, we can say that Sanguinaria is a superb achievement, a verified double-flowering and worthy of a large audience.
TrackList: Sanguinaria; In From Somewhere; Line for Lyons; Waltz New; New Moon; Norm’s Ridge; Country; Falling Grace; A Feeling Inspired by Maria; Bentley’s Blues; Great Pumpkin Waltz; In Your Own Sweet Way