Chris Cortez – Top Secret [TrackList follows] – Blue Bamboo Music BBM026, 58:04 [1/20/15] ****:

(Chris Cortez – guitar, vocal (track 8), producer, engineer; Paul English – piano (tracks 1-3, 5-6, 9-10); Anthony Sapp – bass (tracks 1, 6); Vernon Daniels – drums (tracks 1, 5, 10); Andre Hayward – trombone (tracks 1, 8-10); Ken Easton – trumpet (tracks 1, 8-10); Seth Paynter – tenor sax (tracks 1, 8-10); Warren Sneed – alto sax (tracks 1, 8-10); Bill Murry – bass (tracks 2, 8); Robert Aguilar – drums (tracks 2, 8); Glen Ackerman – bass (tracks 3, 5, 9-10); Joel Fulgham – drums (tracks 3, 6, 9); Greg Petito – guitar (tracks 4, 7); Skip Nallia – piano (track 8))

On guitarist Chris Cortez’s latest outing, the hour-long Top Secret, there aren’t any suave spies like James Bond. But you could find yourself comfortably listening to some of the slower selections while sipping a martini (“shaken, not stirred”), or—during the upbeat tunes—stepping on the gas while cruising down the road (Aston Martin car with ejector seat strictly optional). Cortez has been part of Houston’s jazz community for decades, and his live shows are an assortment of swing classics, romantic ballads, and renditions from the Great American Songbook, with a vibe both sophisticated and colloquial. But when the moment is ripe, Cortez can also jump up the tempo and deliver a fervent blues, a modern jazz piece or veer into rock or R’n’B. And that’s the essence of Top Secret. As Cortez explains, “A typical show includes a fairly eclectic mix of standards, a few originals, a few re-imagined pop tunes in the jazz tradition, and a vocal or two, so I wanted the recording to reflect that.”

Top Secret is entrenched in swinging, danceable groove: sometimes a sensitively-paced beat, other times a quickened cadence, but throughout, Cortez and his backing musicians (which ranges from an eight-piece to duet guitars) always keep the groove. The two openers are an excellent example of spirited splendor. Cortez commences with his composition, “4:20.” The title refers to a code-term which denotes the consumption of cannabis and the manner such users identify themselves with the cannabis subculture. But this isn’t a psychedelic or laid-back tune. Quite the opposite: it moves with a solid shuffle (it’s loaded with fourth chords, too), with four horns adding plenty of punch, and an arrangement which elicits comparisons to Steely Dan’s oeuvre (not the first time Cortez has slipped in a whiff or two of the Dan into his material). The second cut is a quartet translation of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World,” which Cortez re-does as a charismatic, classic swing outlet for his cordial, archtop guitar, Robert Aguilar’s deft drums, and Bill Murry’s insistent bass. But pianist Paul English is the real star here, as he struts his stuff, from delicate single notes to rousing chords.

The rest of Cortez’s covers are equally memorable. He brings the proceedings down a few notches on Frank Foster’s softly sublime “Simone,” where he and English swap some sympathetic solo statements, while drummer Joel Fulgham and bassist Glen Ackerman hold down a pleasant shuffle. Think of a dimly-lit jazz lounge with the aforementioned martini waiting in your favorite booth: this would be the perfect soundtrack for that scene. Cortez also utilizes a quartet for his adaptation of the eternally enchanting Gershwin piece, “The Man I Love.” Cortez and English are again a simpatico team: the way Cortez harmonizes with English is magic, while Anthony Sapp (bass) and Fulgham maintain a toe-tapping rhythm. Cortez reverts to the octet again for a bright, optimistic romp through Leon Russell’s perennial pop hit, “This Masquerade,” made famous by George Benson. While this is unquestionably more pert and lively than Benson’s version, Cortez does echo Benson’s clement atmosphere with his convivial guitar tone.

Cortez’s guitar is at the forefront on two further covers. He and fellow six-stringer Greg Petito offer splendid duets on Benny Goodman’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee,” two of the best covers. The harmonic overtones and interplay on the Goodman cut is outstanding, as Cortez (right channel) and Petito (left channel) put a zippy spin on the well-known number. They surpass themselves on the Parker track, where Petito seamlessly does a Parker-influenced solo on “Donna Lee,” while Cortez supplies the melody, which provides a stylish counterpoint. Jazz guitar fans should to check this out at their earliest convenience. Cortez reveals he’s also a fine singer as he applies his warm, baritone voice to Arthur Hamilton’s enduring standard, “Cry Me a River,” which also has lots of space for Cortez’s rich guitar, Skip Nallia’s crystalline piano and the four-horn support. Top Secret shouldn’t be hidden from anyone who appreciates cheery vibes and a multitude of grooves. The ten tracks are presented with effervescent characteristics which display a pleasing temperament, joyfulness and affection for swinging jazz.

TrackList: Black Market; Butterfly; Joyous Lake; Medieval Overture; Resolution; Red Baron; Low-Lee-Tah; There Comes a Time.

—Doug Simpson