Javier Vercher – Wish You Were Here [TrackList follows] – Musikoz 002, 66:25 [3/10/15] ***1/2:
(Javier Vercher – tenor saxophone, woodwinds, hand percussion, co-producer; Lionel Loueke – guitar; Sam Yahel – piano (tracks 1, 3, 6, 8-9); Larry Grenadier – doublebass; Francisco Mela – drums; Arturo Stable – percussion (track 1); Jorge Perez – Peruvian cajón (track 4); Brian Schreck – vocals (track 7))
Tenor saxophonist Javier Vercher unites two sides of jazz. On the one side, he’s fond of melodic music with straightforward motion: pleasant, no overt surprises, splendidly swinging. On the other hand, the Brooklyn-via-Spain Vercher likes unpredictability and going into areas where instantaneous, sometimes discordant, improvisation is important. Both aspects of Vercher’s musical personality are layered into the tenor saxophonist’s fourth effort as leader, the hour-long Wish You Were Here (recorded in 2008; released overseas in 2010; issued stateside this year). There are ballads; there is jazz poetry; there is hummable, post-bop artistry. Anyone interested in a preview should watch an online promo video which explains the record’s background and showcases in-studio performances. Vercher’s creativity is abetted by a sympathetic group consisting of Benin-born acoustic guitarist Lionel Loueke (who can sound like Earl Klugh or a wilder Pat Metheny); pianist Sam Yahel (featured on five tracks: he is also known as a Hammond organist); double bassist Larry Grenadier (he was previously in pianist Brad Mehldau’s trio, and has done sessions with Larry Vuckovich, Joshua Redman, Enrico Rava, and others); and drummer Francisco Mela (his résumé includes saxophonist Joe Lovano and Chris Crocco). Vercher also utilizes guests on a few other cuts to add spice to the proceedings.
Wish You Were Here (which can be streamed in full online) begins with Loueke’s sole contribution, the warm and tender “Vivi” (all other compositions were penned by Vercher). This sincere outing has a light, Latin touch via Loueke’s guitar (on this piece, Loueke evokes the smoothness of Ricardo Silveira), while Vercher advances into slightly sharper topography, achieving an earthy and soaring tone. Mela bounces his sticks in an assertive way and is assisted by percussionist Arturo Stable. When Yahel takes the spotlight, there’s a suggestion of Mehldau. There are also wordless vocals which bubble underneath, imparting a crumb of unconventionality. The title track (which has no apparent connection to the Pink Floyd album with the same name) has a similar approach, with cozy acoustic guitar; lots of cymbals from Mela; balmy bass lines; and Vercher’s ear-catching sax lines (he seems like a cross between early Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon). More wordless vocals sneak in, when Loueke solos. The interplay of acoustic guitar and tenor sax is a highlight of the nearly-eight-minute “Ears of a Distant Traveler,” although the harmonic vocalizations get uncomfortably close to Keith Jarrett territory. Vercher kicks things up several notches on the upbeat “Ahí Donde Vive Joe,” a bop-inclined burner where Vercher and Yahel trade lines; Yahel supplies some seriously good vamping; and the rhythm section keeps everything clicking along with agility. Vercher and his band end the regular program with the quietly stunning and aptly-named “Style & Grace.” Loueke commences with a beautiful acoustic guitar intro; then bass, sax, and drums enter to furnish more stirring music. Yahel is not present and Vercher and Loueke shine throughout: Vercher is particularly worth mentioning when he occasionally treads away from the main theme to craft somewhat rougher sounds.
There are two bonus cuts and this is where Vercher stretches beyond expectations. These two numbers, in fact, may throw some off-track. But that’s probably Vercher’s intent. First is the ghostly, percussion-loaded “Turning Towards Kindness No. VIII,” where guest vocalist Brian Schreck reads a poem by 14th-century Persian author Jelaluddin Rumi, while Vercher’s arrangement concentrates on liquid-like percussion, some breathy sax and production/mix trickery to provide a contemporary patina. Vercher shows his freer jazz predisposition on “Rio Blanco No. IX”. The nine-minute tune launches in a relaxed manner, with easeful sax and nicely-plucked guitar, but bit by bit tension builds, just a hint, but little by little the sax and piano indicate oncoming conflict. Seven minutes into the piece, that dissonance is headfirst, although even so, there is stabilization via bass and drums. On Wish You Were Here, Vercher and his allies establish a successful balance between satiating jazz which should appeal to mainstream listeners, with moments of explorative space which never goes out of control.
TrackList: Vivi; Wish You Were Here; Magicians of Sound; Ears of a Distant Traveler; Blue Heron; Ahí Donde Vive Joe; Style & Grace; Bonus Tracks: Turning Towards Kindness No. VIII; Rio Blanco No. IX.