Jacob Szekely Trio [TrackList follows] – self, 887516979446, 56:02 [8/21/15] ****:
(Jacob Szekely – cello; Josh Nelson – piano; Christopher Allis – drums)
There are some lead instruments which immediately come to mind when jazz is the topic. Cello is probably low on the list. Cellist Jacob Szekely is setting out to prove the string instrument can be a wonderful jazz lead instrument. Szekely’s self-titled and self-released album, his first with the Jacob Szekely Trio (also called the JS3), is an hour-long program of mostly original jazz compositions (there is one cover) which swing, flexibly shift from traditional to modern jazz, and combine attributes from jazz, rock, funk, classical and East Indian music.
Szekely isn’t known as much in jazz circles as he should be, but his standing is higher in other genres. He’s supported such acts as Mary J. Blige, Avril Lavigne and Canadian prog-rockers Rush, either on stage or in the studio. Along the way, he’s also developed or become involved with a Los Angeles-based string project; an online strings pick-up-testing venture (so string players can figure out what electronic pick-ups work best for their instruments before purchase and installation), and other undertakings.
Szekely’s trio comprises Szekely on cello; keyboardist Josh Nelson, who switches from acoustic piano to the occasional electric keyboard (he’s a solo artist who has backed Peter Erskine, Anthony Wilson and others), and drummer Christopher Allis (whose session credits inside and outside jazz are lengthy). When listening to the Jacob Szekely Trio’s contemporary jazz—headed by a string instrument—comparisons to violinists like Jean-Luc Ponty are inevitable, but Szekely is his own man, as evidenced by his original material and his approach to composition and improvisation.
It’s obvious from the start this is not a third stream effort, melding classical with jazz, despite having an instrument commonly identified with classical music. The nearly eight-minute opener, “300 Years,” is both soulful and meditative and has a strong jazz groove. The structure and style recalls early Ponty, but not specifically. There are some moments when Szekely’s classical music education can be heard, but that is not predominant. What is prevalent is the trio’s jazz experience. Nelson is a skillful rhythm supporter as well as an excellent soloist; Allis contributes layered and textured percussion and drumming; and Szekely sparkles as he swings on cello, sometimes bringing to mind Stephane Grappelli. The 7:40 piece, “Morning Rush,” has a fusion-esque tone. Nelson utilizes electric piano, which provides a slight soul jazz sound, while Szekely spotlights his ability to be as expressive as a guitarist. His solo about halfway through includes an intriguing Asian/Indian treatment, which showcases his influences outside jazz. The way Szekely uses his bow to craft a wide tonal range is almost horn-like and conveys how he has also been inspired by John Coltrane, Miles Davis and similar musicians. The fusion-fueled “Project 7” begins with a winding, mysterious characteristic before building to crescendos. Nelson moves between an electric keyboard and acoustic piano. There are some progressive rock-tinted traces which hint at Nelson’s contributions to Rush, but overall the seven-minute “Project 7” is closest to ‘70s jazz-rock.
The sonic possibilities of the cello are replete on Szekely’s beautiful solo cut, “Diana’s Lullaby,” which at 4:09 is the CD’s shortest work. Here, Szekely plucks his strings rather than using a bow, which delivers a bass-like trait. During this melancholy ballad the amplification supplies a bit of reverb, there is some echo, and Szekely also applies looping (or overdubbing) to generate a dual-cello quality. Szekely also goes mostly solo on the moody “Spoon Man,” although Allis adds sparse percussive components to impart an underlying beat. The only non-Szekely piece is “Dig,” by alternative metal/rock band Incubus. But it’s hard to discern the connection. The JS3 turn this rock track into a distinct jazz-fusion arrangement which is nowhere close to what Incubus recorded. The threesome conclude with another quiet ballad, “Postlude: Houston,” which commences with Nelson’s piano introduction. Initially, the piano and cello evoke classical music, but before long the trio expands their arrangement and picks up the pacing, and the track alters to swaying jazz. If someone is interested in a closer inspection of what Szekely has accomplished, there is a four-minute making-of video which has snippets of music featured on the trio’s CD, as well as footage from the studio production.
TrackList: 300 Years; Corner Song; Morning Rush; Diana’s Lullaby; Project 7; Balance; Spoon Man; Dig; Postlude: Houston.