Greg Skaff – East Harlem Skyline – Zoho ZM 200902, 58:08 ****:
(Greg Skaff – guitar, producer; George Colligan – Hammond B-3 organ (tracks 2-10); E.J. Strickland – drums (tracks 2-10); George Laks – Hammond B-3 organ (track 1); Darryl Jones – electric bass (track 1); Charley Drayton – drums, percussion (track 1))
New York City guitarist Greg Skaff is helping to keep the jazz organ combo alive and well. He states in the liner notes to his latest effort, East Harlem Skyline, that Hammond B-3, guitar and drums, "…have always fascinated me. The first jazz I heard, both on recordings and live, were organ groups." Skaff has played as a sideman in a multitude of settings with Bobby Watson, Ruth Brown, Freddie Hubbard, and others and worked alongside David "Fathead" Newman and Stanley Turrentine (who also contributed to organ groups). Despite his ability to tackle myriad areas of jazz, on his solo projects Skaff leans toward the hard grooves, the swinging funk and the vitalizing vigor that are hallmarks of organ trios.
East Harlem Skyline follows on the heels of Skaff’s strongly-regarded Ellington Boulevard, which included Hammond B-3 ace Mike LeDonne and drummer Joe Farnsworth. While Skaff changes his backing band on his new undertaking, he does not roam far from the soulful strides he earlier accomplished.
Though the ten tracks presented here are firmly within the organ/guitar/drums tradition, listeners might be surprised to find there are no down and dirty blues shuffles, no straight-up boogaloo, and the treatments given the three covers may not be what some expect. But Skaff’s approach is what furnishes this outing a means of success: Skaff moves tradition forward and provides an arena for his own ideas to develop.
Skaff commences with the rambunctious "Willie D," his rousing memorial to legendary blues artist/composer Willie Dixon. On the Southern soul-seasoned party percolator, Skaff employs a different rhythm section than on the rest of the record: organist George Laks, adjunct Rolling Stones bassist Darryl Jones and drummer Charles "Charley" Drayton (who has worked with Fiona Apple and Paul Simon). "Willie D" is the only track that uses a bassist and Skaff explains that is because Dixon was also a bass man and Skaff wanted to echo Dixon’s earthy bass tone. However, the opening bass riff and the melody’s first line are not based on a Dixon composition, but rather Victor Lewis’ "Ella Dunham." After the bluesy intro, Skaff and the quartet head into jazz-rock fusion territory as Skaff executes hearty six-string riffs, with Laks mostly engaged in a supportive role until near the close, when Skaff lays back and Laks knocks out an impressive solo section.
The second tune introduces Skaff’s regular trio members: organist George Colligan and drummer E.J. Strickland. Skaff’s self-penned "Contrary to Popular Motion" started life as a tribute to Wes Montgomery and was inspired by the kind of guitar lines Montgomery performed, but gradually evolved into something more than appreciation. During the fleet-moving piece Skaff sprints in and out of Colligan’s Hammond B-3 harmony crescendos and Strickland’s brisk and organized rhythmic figures. The arrangement allows for some superb improvisations that give the tune a fervent affluence.
Next up is Wayne Shorter’s "Angola," which has a deceptively straightforward melody that consists of two four-bar patterns, but upon closer inspection the chord changes within those phrases progress in a way that makes improvising a challenge. Skaff’s guitar tone is clean and lightly sustained, reminiscent of Montgomery. About 3/4ths through the song, Colligan strikes a Jimmy Smith-like pose with a simmering solo while Strickland drives his cymbals vigorously and maintains exemplary time throughout.
After that Skaff varies the program with the longest cut, "Tropicalia," another example where the guitarist is stimulated by sources outside of the typical guitar/drums/organ template. The song is audibly influenced by Caetano Veloso’s Brazilian music and was sparked by Skaff’s reading of Veloso’s memoir, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil. Skaff, with a sharp Montgomery-mannered guitar tone, starts with a samba-ish octave riff reiterated to control the melody. While "Tropicalia" has a laid-back temperament, there is nothing colorless about Colligan’s attentive comping behind Skaff or Skaff’s cool but bouncy fret work. Skaff’s solo venture is unruffled, soft, and poetic without any showy flourishes. Strickland is also incisive, particularly during the finish where he cuts loose on the toms and his snare with resolve and confidence. Near the conclusion, Skaff references a further acknowledged guitar inspiration, George Benson, who recorded memorable material with organists Jack McDuff and Lonnie Smith. The band pursues a contemplative stride on the youthful ballad "Yasmine’s Dance," named for Skaff’s daughter. Here the riffs are balmy and breezy, mirrored by Skaff and Colligan’s musical bonding.
Continuing in an easygoing expression, Skaff drops the organ trio format on his inaugural recorded solo guitar excursion, Billy Strayhorn’s "Lotus Blossom," which is notable for a slightly classical-tinged arrangement that was put together with the assistance of Skaff’s teacher Michael Lorimer.
Skaff ends with a lengthy, distortion-drenched fusion jam on Fiona Apple’s "Fast As You Can," which retains the original’s blues-pop motif. The rendition is highlighted by quickly-paced runs of filigreed guitar, Colligan’s rock-inclined organ solo, and an engaging guitar/organ duet that reflects the song’s sense of individuality and rebellion. It’s an edgy and exuberant way to conclude the set.
1. Willie D
2. Contrary to Popular Motion
5. Yasmine’s Dance
8. Lotus Blossom
10. Fast As You Can
— Doug Simpson