Charlie Apicella & Iron City – Sparks – Carlo Music CAR232, 46:04 ***:
(Charlie Apicella – guitar; Dave Mattock – Hammond organ; Alan Korzin – drums; Stephen Riley – tenor saxophone (tracks 1-3, 5 & 6); John Blake, Jr. – violin (track 1); Amy Bateman – violin (track 7))
On their sophomore release, Sparks, soul-jazzsters Charlie Apicella and Iron City continue to bring alive the spirit of Apicella’s hero, Grant Green. Green’s influence is felt throughout Iron City’s disposition. The band was named after a Green song and the trio – Apicella on guitar, new member Dave Mattock on Hammond organ and Alan Korzin on drums – mines material associated with Green.
The Northeast threesome has already garnered some fame up and down the East Coast, doing clubs in New York City and other locales and opening for artists such as Larry Coryell. Apicella calls Amherst, MA home but his inspirations are more southern or earthy in nature: Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Lonnie Smith (whom Apicella studies with) and likeminded jazz aces.
On Sparks the group shuffles between originals and well-chosen covers while retaining their core mission of keeping people’s feet tapping, heads bobbing and always maintaining a groove. Besides introducing a new keyboardist, Apicella also delivers other touches to the mix by adding tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley on four cuts and two guest violinists to other tracks.
Iron City gets right down to the grits and gravy groove on opener "Sookie Sookie," a Don Covay hit that Grant Green also interpreted. The infectious affair is highlighted by Apicella’s carefree guitar work. His disport is busy and cooking. Mattock lies back through most of the song, providing vamps. Violinist John Blake, Jr. offers a solo reminiscent of early Jean-Luc Ponty before Ponty discovered electric violin. Riley lays out a flutey solo as well, his breathy stroll referencing Yusef Lateef’s tone, which is appropriate given that Lateef performed with Green. During the six-minute piece Korzin keeps the proceedings moored with his deft drumming.
Green’s presence is stronger on a mid-tempo version of "Blues in Maude’s Flat," found on Green’s second long-player, Grantstand. Apicella and crew preserve a loose, loping feel and churn round an expansive groove, although their arrangement is a much shorter translation, about half as long as Green’s foray. Apicella layers a clear-toned solo that evokes Grant, while Riley furnishes a tenderized, bop-tinged sax sound. Mattock’s straightforward and swinging organ undertaking is blissful and melodious and he slips in a humorous vamp at the end.
Another Apicella idol is Dr. Lonnie Smith, who recently became one of Apicella’s teachers. Iron City tackles Smith’s funky "Play It Back," fronted by a James Brown-ish riff. Apicella and Mattock lock into a rooted and relaxed amble. Apicella pulls from George Benson’s predilections, who was a Smith alum, while Mattock and Korzin render a solid beat and sustain the rhythmic axis.
Apicella splits his duties between Iron City and the tango/Latin jazz gathering Cidade. That side of Apicella’s personality is portrayed on a rollicking take of Lou Donaldson’s "Caracas." Riley showcases his prominent technique with some fine phrasing, while Apicella impresses with his direct and well-enacted approach. Mattock also chips in a choice solo break.
Apicella supplies three originals to the eight-cut song list. The soulful title track is notable because it contains Riley’s best performance, where he threads together a collection of coiled saxophone turns that are successively echoed by some of Apicella’s finest six-string embellishments. The strutting, medium-cool "A Decade in the Making" is a spirited romp accented by Riley’s warm tone, Mattock’s nimble organ discursions and Korzin’s firm backbeat. The up-tempo "Sweet and Sounded" is supported by Cidade violinist Amy Bateman, who contributes a lively solo akin to Stéphane Grappelli. Her extended excursion is an album standout and helps make this record well worth exploring. While none of Apicella’s compositions match music written by Green, Donaldson and others, they reveal an ongoing development that will no doubt bear fruit on later Iron City projects.
Iron City concludes with a tribute to the deceased king of pop. While Michael Jackson’s "Billie Jean" is no stranger to music listeners, it is not a usual part of the jazz spectrum. Apicella, Mattock and Korzin stress Jackson’s contagious cadence, accelerating the time signature while avoiding the trap of treating the popular tune as simply an instrumental pop ditty. Mattock drafts a bluesy solo and Apicella emphasizes the melody while at the same time demonstrating his bustling fretwork.
Sparks has some stimulating moments – particularly when violin and sax are used – but overall Apicella and Iron City have not yet broken free of their musical icons to exhibit a unique and fresh soul-jazz vision. The ensemble presentation is well-crafted and tight but lacks the singular edge needed to propel Iron City to a higher level. However, it is evident that this next phase in the group’s progression will happen and Iron City will become a noteworthy and memorable assemblage.
1. Sookie Sookie
3. Blues in Maude’s Flat
4. Play It Back
6. A Decade in the Making
7. Sweet and Sounded
8. Billie Jean
— Doug Simpson