Many wouldn't consider Portland, Oregon to be a jazz mecca, per se, but there's enough demand there to keep guitarist Dan Balmer busy and then some. In addition to his position on the music faculty of Lewis and Clark College, he holds court regularly at Jimmy Mak's with his own group and with veteran drummer Mel Brown's various bands-in-residence. His performance credits reveal he's shared stages with straight-ahead notables like Joey DeFrancesco, Bill Mays, Joe LaBarbera, but it takes just one listen to his playing to hear him link "the tradition" to more contemporary strains. His eighth recording as a leader, Thanksgiving, is a great example.
This record, and Balmer's playing in general, strikes a great balance between chops and atmosphere. The group cooks up the right blend for the groovy opener "Venus," with Gary Versace's swelling organ tones and Matt Wilson's wide-ranging percussive palette. Balmer's cool, gritty tone gives his bluesy licks an even more personal twist. And he has a big sound. "Just Like You" is awash in a full, fuzzy swathe of ringing strings. Balmer wrings out a great deal of emotion from his axe here, and his gauzy tone adds even more depth to his statements. Versace and Wilson work plenty hard, too, maintaining a mysterious ebb and flow. Throughout the session, in fact, the trio's interplay can give just a few minutes of music an endless variety of textures.
While it's easy enough to hear the album's sonic virtues, Balmer's compositional prowess might be a bit subtler, but it's a key ingredient for the session. "The Sea The Sea" and "Rain" have some haunting programmatic ambience as you'd expect, but they're also built on beautiful lines with intriguing constructions. The sunny, country themes of "Hearts of Steel" and "The Longest Day of the Year" inspire some infectious solo statements that could easily be melodies themselves. And the slouchy feel of "Allow Myself" or the off-kilter funk of "Greasy Kid Stuff" are practically built into the composition. These are some catchy tunes -- with a purpose.
And, of course, along with the sound-painting and well-turned melodic phrase, there's the incredible playing. I would have used the term "effortless" to describe it, but that seems to deny intent or thought. His performance unfolds naturally and confidently, but he also grows and develops even as he plays. And his modern vibe doesn't just come from effects and ambience but also from how fresh he keeps his ideas. The LA Times has called him "the model of what a contemporary guitarist should be." I whole-heartedly agree.
Thanksgiving (Alt rnativ Ja z)
Dan Balmer (guitar)
Gary Versace (organ)
Matt Wilson (drums)
Lewis and Clark article
Jazz Society of Oregon interview
Portland Jazz Jams interviews (1, 2)
Dan Balmer: Through These Years (compilation)
Go By Train: Go By Train
Go By Train: Transportation
Mel Brown: Girl Talk
Mel Brown: Live: an Evening With the Mel Brown Quartet
George Mitchell: Play Zone
Also look for Dianne Schuur's forthcoming release on HeadsUp in 2008.
[photo from Lewis and Clark College]