JC Stylles – Exhilaration and Other States – Motema MTM-68, 48:17 ***1/2:
(JC Stylles – guitar; Pat Bianchi – Hammond B-3 organ; Lawrence Leathers – drums)
A little bit modern and a little bit retro, that’s the sound of guitarist JC Stylles. The Australian-born and current NYC-based musician has garnered a reputation in the land Down Under and among Big Apple soul-jazz enthusiasts who love the classic guitar/B-3/drums trio format. While Stylles is a new alias, older fans know Stylles by his given name, Jason Campbell. But due to a prolific amount of media and Internet information related to an NFL player with the same name, JC Stylles became Campbell’s nom de jazz.
The aptly-titled Exhilaration and Other States marks Stylles’ debut (although as Campbell he released two previous albums) as well as his first for the Motema label. The nine tracks – one original and eight well-chosen covers – are partial to muscle and groove but don’t skimp on slower-burning material. On the CD’s artwork, Stylles looks like someone steeped in early rock and roll or retro-rockabilly. Truthfully he has studied his jazz heroes closely, which can be heard on the opener, a fast-paced run-through of Bobby Hutcherson’s oft-sampled swinger, “Knucklebean,” from Hutcherson’s 1977 LP of the same name, issued in 2007 as part of a Mosaic Select boxed set. This blues-tinted piece is an excellent trio intro, showcasing Stylles’ George Benson-inflected playing, Hammond B-3 organist Pat Bianchi’s soulful keyboard stabs and drummer Lawrence Leathers’ in-the-pocket groove. This probably goes down well on stage.
A contemporary number definitely developed for live performance is Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It,” a Michael Jackson hit. The inspiration came when Stylles and his trio were doing a gig the day Jackson’s death was reported and a club-goer requested the band musically pay respect. A week later “I Can’t Help It” was added to the set list. Stylles keeps the arrangement upbeat and straightforward and trades solos with Bianchi, pushing the melody aside at times in favor of strutting improvisation. Another modern R&B piece which gets reinterpreted in a jazz mode is R. Kelly’s moody romantic ballad “It Seems Like You’re Ready,” where Stylles gently shimmers on guitar and really illustrates his Benson influence and Leathers manipulates his sticks and cymbals with a slow ticking pulse.
Jazz fans, though, undoubtedly will lean toward cuts made famous by Billie Holiday, Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane. Holiday’s standard “Don’t Explain” – the longest track – exploits the trio’s restraint, fronted by Stylles’ voice-like chord phrases and Leathers’ softly-rendered brushes. Bianchi amps up the proceedings a tad when he solos. This version won’t replace those recorded by other artists but does prove Stylles has a gift for redoing vocal material with instrumental panache. Although numerous musicians have recorded Billy Eckstine’s classic “I Want to Talk About You,” Stylles is one of many listeners mesmerized by Coltrane’s take. Here, Stylles utilizes the full sustain of his custom Palen archtop guitar (the same shown on the cover art no doubt) to craft smoothly shifting notes which put the “S” in smoldering. On the flip side, the threesome turns Shorter’s “Pinocchio” (misspelled as “Pinnochio”) into an animated highlight. It does not appear anyone has ever switched this tribute to the Disney character into a vigorous and soulful organ/guitar/drums feature, so kudos to Stylles for bringing a fresh viewpoint to this boppish tune previously done by Miles Davis, Weather Report and others. Stylles ends with his own work, the energetic “Samba Steps,” based on the chordal progression of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” While not stellar, hopefully Stylles will attempt similar offerings in the future.
2. I Can’t Help It
3. I Want to Talk About You
4. Love for Sale
5. Don’t Explain
6. Tune for Roger
8. It Seems Like You’re Ready
9. Samba Steps
— Doug Simpson