Darts and Arrows – Altamira [TrackList follows] – ears&eyes ee:15-o33, 43:11 [10/16/15] ***1/2:
(Bill MacKay – guitar; Ben Boye – keyboards; Kyle Hernandez – bass; Quin Kirchner – drums; Renée Baker – viola (tracks 1, 4, 7); Nick Mazzarella – alto saxophone (tracks 1, 4, 7))
There’s a restless spirit which suffuses Altamira, the third outing from Chicago experimental/alternative jazz quartet, Darts & Arrows. Guitarist Bill MacKay creates strikingly textured auditory narratives on seven through-composed tracks, which meld, are inspired by and nod towards jazz rock, Americana, progressive rock, and psychedelic pop/rock. Listeners will probably think of guitar icons such as Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell while hearing MacKay’s originals (keyboardist Ben Boye also wrote one tune). MacKay is bolstered by a superb group: Boye, bassist Kyle Hernandez, drummer Quin Kirchner, and guests Renée Baker (who adds her viola to three cuts) and alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella (who also is on three numbers: he’s best known for his work with Ken Vandermark).
The album opens with “Evergreen,” which MacKay says, “Speaks on the energy or light that hides behind the everyday strife of living. Despite the desire to limit or quench its flame, it endures and refuses to be submerged.” The intro initiates a primary theme which moves throughout the arrangement. There is an up-tempo section which spotlights the band’s dynamic demeanor; and a gentler lyrical bit which surfaces several times. The musicians conclude “Evergreen” with an optimistic gleam. “No Demons Return” has a surf-rock tinge highlighted by MacKay’s sparkling guitar and Kirchner’s rock-bent drumming and percussion. The music is less Beach Boys and more akin to current surf-music makers such as the Mermen.
Sometimes the music flickers rather than flashes, such as during the slow-burning “The Well-Wishers,” where Baker’s viola and Mazzarella’s sax augment the coolly escalating composition. A fundamental, repeating motif rides through the 7:25 piece. MacKay adapted this tune from an arrangement for a string quartet, and the viola and guitar interchanges evoke the contemporary classical origins. There’s a wistful quality to Boye’s “Carried There & Ponytailed,” a shadowy, flowing ballad tinted by Boye’s sensitive Fender Rhodes, which glides above Kirchner and Hernandez’s graceful rhythms. MacKay’s guitar is understated, but he makes every note count toward something larger, like precisely-placed pixels inside a figurative picture. The momentum ascends again on the prog-rock-like “Look Out,” which is constructed from a climbing refrain. “Look Out” leans close to jazz fusion territory, and is buoyed by MacKay’s alt-rock-esque guitar riffs as well as Kirchner’s driving drums. “Look Out” has a stormy center, a crackling crux which rocks with effort and impact. Altamira ends with further quiet serenity on the reminiscent “I Won’t Forget You,” another cut which features Baker’s viola and Mazzarella’s sax. This has a folk-crinkled measurement, and merges neo-folk, jazz fusion and rock. “I Won’t Forget You” is translucent and tenacious, pristine but also slightly somatic. The viola possesses a high, clean vibe, while MacKay provides slim distortion, and that juxtaposition supplies a balance. Altamira may be too much rock for traditional jazz fans, but those who slant toward rock with improvisational inclinations— that unique area where jazz and modern rock come together to craft a genre-less amalgam—will find much to enjoy.
TrackList: Evergreen; No Demons Return; 1919 Molasses Tragedy; The Well-Wishers; Carried There & Ponytailed; Look Out; I Won’t Forget You.