Mike Pardew – Azul – Afán Music AFAN0005, 52:47 ***1/2:
(Mike Pardew – guitar, executive producer, bass on tracks 6 and 9; Damian Erskine – bass; Micah Kassell – drums, guitar on tracks 6 and 9)
Although azul is the Spanish word for blue, Mike Pardew’s jazz-rock fusion album, Azul, is a multi-colored project. Nevertheless, dissolution, indigo moods, and other dark hues dye the twelve tracks. Pardew is a busy shareholder in the Portland, Oregon music scene both as performer and instructor, and brings his many-sided influences to his sophomore effort.
On the Latin-tinted title song Pardew exercises a systematic use of harmonic clarity and space. Even though Pardew often impresses with his six-string force, his solos are always relevant to the composition, and are not inordinately flashy. Pardew, as well as drummer Micah Kassell and bassist Damian Erskine (who is Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine’s nephew) maintain this sense of lean sturdiness all through the album.
The contemplative “Welcome Home” shares the title cut’s connoted sparseness. The tender-timbred tune yields a counterpointed exchange between Erskine’s fluid Jaco-esque bass and Pardew’s understated adornments. The linear activity displayed by Pardew and Erskine seems casual and yet reveals educated technique and form. Another song that has a similar, subdued essence is the pendulant, pretty “Transgression,” where Erskine uses his six-string bass to swap chordal textures with Pardew. “Ferrazzano” is also a graceful gesture that, however, carries some controlled friction that hints at subconscious pressures.
Pardew presents his rock roots, which include Hendrix and Jimmy Page, on craggier segments like “Road Worn,” “Velonis” and “Stairwell.” The psychedelic-shaded “Road Worn” is a darkly pigmented prog-fusion piece that evokes Brand X circa 1975, where Pardew applies a grunge-like fuzz intonation through most of the number, switches to a cleaner, straightforward guitar inflection, and then circles back to where he started. During rotating “Velonis,” Pardew shreds in a Carlos Santana-ish manner. On “Stairwell,” another contentious cut, Pardew runs through a thick, recurring riff, while Erskine and drummer Micah Kassell lay out a stout, quickened beat. Throughout the striding creation, Erskine’s storm-tossed electric bass lines support Pardew’s fiery high-end solos. Oddly, though, “Stairwell” finishes suddenly and abruptly in a move that appears off-balance.
Unsteady elements unfortunately undermine other areas on Azul. The topographically inclined hard rock/metal tidbit “Flathead Lake,” which contains a manipulated answering-machine message that is melded to an undercooked Kassell guitar solo, acts as an unneeded preface to the aggressive “Bigfork,” one more geographically-slanted instrumental, which sits closer to alternative metal than to jazz-rock. “U.S. Route 93,” also a Kassell guitar fragment, is a further heavy metal hiccup that has scant value.
Though Azul is credited to Mike Pardew, essentially this is a power trio showcase. Individual musicianship counts in such a setting, but this kind of situation also obligates each player to contribute equally to the overall design and various arrangements. Luckily, Pardew, Erskine, and Kassell fulfill those requirements with their aptitude, precision, and communication. Azul is not a record that advances jazz-rock and fusion firmly onto new ground, but when the three musicians gel, Pardew, Erskine, and Kassell create some propulsive artistry.
3. Welcome Home
4. Road Worn
6. U.S. Route 93
10. Flathead Lake
— Doug Simpson