Jeff DINGLER: In Transit – 41:43 (9/4/17) ****;
(Jeff Dingler; bass/ Brad Shepik; guitar/ Lou Rainone; piano/ Gusten Rudolph/ Josh Bailey; percussion)
Ethiopian inflected jazz, both buoyant and brainy.
From the title of this new release—In Transit—as well as the cover, which shows a murmuration of swallows against an orange desert sky, we gather we are headed somewhere exotic. It is only after opening the sleeve that we discover this place is Ethiopia. In the photo, it is easy to spot the gringo walking through a busy African suk, carrying his bass. We don’t learn what prompted his Abyssinian sojourn, only that some of the pieces are “influenced directly from the rich sounds and musical traditions of Ethiopia, while others are more abstract interpretations of scenes of the country.”
The African flavors consist of the ubiquitous pentatonic scale (filtered through a bebop sensibility), a percussion layer which can become an exuberant chorus, and some colorful ornamentation indigenous to the guitar. More generally, throughout the record, one feels the generosity of African music, its uplift and celebration.
The bassist’s eight charts are very well done. They are much more than simple hooks on generic Afro-grooves. Dingler describes Merkato Navigation as a “Lennie Tristano inspired depiction of busy scene in Addis Ababa.” It offers an intricate bebop line played in unison by guitar, piano and bass and places us squarely in a New York Jazz club. The most conventional piece, it contains breathless soloing and a nimble bass excursion. The gentle In Transit shows off the pianist Lou Rainone’s lyrical touch on an affecting melody. More exciting is Sebat, (“seven”) in Amharic, which is in ⅞ time, with bubbling rhythm and keening upper-register guitar work. Likewise, the opening Bati Celebration makes a compelling argument for moving the body. The zany guitar figures are met with torrential energy from kit and hand drums. It is the band’s finest moment.
Unavoidably, the session is dominated by the guitarist, Brad Shepik. In good African fashion, the music aims for group cohesion rather than individual self-assertion, with the bassist especially self-effacing throughout. Yet somehow, the guitarist lines and notions are consistently the most engaging. Shepik has carved out his own distinct language, call it Balko-Byzantine if you wish; It comprises signature wonky modes, eccentric melodic ideas and sharp rhythmic jabs. He can also play with sweetness and simplicity as he does on Orange Clouds, the tone of his instrument is resplendent. On Addis Blues he shines on a snaky line, to which he adds bizarre filigree blues ideas, somehow pentatonic yet unpredictable.
If our readers are unfamiliar with this remarkable musician, they would do well to check out a CD which features his adventurous playing on Lingua Franca (Songlines 2005, *****) an ethno-jazz outing with Matt Kilmer and Peter Epstein. Even as I disencumber myself from hundreds of interchangeable jazz guitar records, I continue to be delighted and amazed by the variety and high-spirits of this twelve-year old recording.
If Shepik is the big draw on this record, we can still give our heartiest commendation to the leader who brought together the session, long prepared by his musical and African journeys. He is a fine player and a composer at the beginning of a most promising musical career. It is all the more rewarding to get a musical gift which pays tribute to this little known but fabled land. For now, you will have to purchase this record from CDBaby, Jeff Dingler In Transit