Award winning guitarist, Gene Ess, draws upon a sundry of experiences and a unique background to form his personal sound. Studying classical piano, Gene’s early years were filled with sounds of Beethoven and Chopin. Originally from Tokyo, Japan Ess grew up on a U.S. Air Force Base on Okinawa, Ess was deeply and simultaneously receiving a mix of influences: from the indigenous music of Okinawa - to the pop and jazz music coming out of the clubs for the American soldiers. These beginnings would send him on a lifelong quest to reach for creative heights in his music.
His new album, Absurdist Theater, is slated to be released late September, 2016. Drawing upon his working group Fractal Attraction, Gene is joined by Thana Alexa (voice), Manuel Valera (piano), Yasushi Nakamura (bass), and Clarence Penn (drums). This set of new compositions continues Gene’s exploration of using voice as an instrument in a chamber group setting.
The album begins with a new and appropriately titled opening, “Out of the Ashes” signaled with Thana Alexa’s poignant and powerfully evocative voice. Gene begins the ascent of greatness, his guitar pulses the path and both Valera and Ess create a colorful fabric of intricate note choices, tension and forward motion. The gritty electric sound of Ess’ guitar is warm and round creating a muscular tautness and then release, that gives way to Valera’s colorized building choices. Penn uses his kit to create peaks and valleys to propel the track to a complex, yet rich sound that clearly sets the album in modern jazz territory.
“Circe’s Compassion” gives the listener a chance to hear Ess on nylon strung guitar, the group delicately supports, while not over bearing the acoustic sound. Like a story of life, each section begs its own story; Alexa’s voice is warm yet commanding and is exclusively used as an instrument; this is where Ess’ ideas are and have been ahead of their time on his Fractal Attraction outings and way ahead of the curve, though many groups are beginning to use a vocalist in the instrument seat, it is Ess that as an instrumentalist saw and understood the value of the human voice in what is typically known to be an instrumental only setting by utilizing the strengths and uniqueness of Alexa’s instrument as a leader (group member) in the collaborative band sound.
Ess spent time in San Jose which is about 30km from the city of Almeria, which is on the southern coast of Spain, it was here he composed much of what is comprised within the hallows of Absurdist Theater. “Déjala Que Pase,” a product of this time, begins with darkly hued lyrics that explore the meaning of existence, and features Alexa in full lyric vocals, her voice is filled with a story quality with abilities to transition from head voice to chest voice with ease of shift. The group creates a flurry of notes and crashes to build to a transition that soars into ethereal heights of transcendence. One feels as if they are on a journey of “themselves” while listening. A musical dynamic release brings the lyric back into play as each word is treated with loving delivery for its most poignant message.
The closer “Upward and Onward!” is a hard-swinging fast paced burner that also gives the listener compositional twists and turns of rhythmic interludes. Each player is more than up to the task, and each display a tightly woven interactive feel that pushes forward with intensity and excitement. Jazz can be an emotion filled listen in the right hands, and Ess and Fractal Attraction have certainly brought this sound to the forefront in Absurdist Theater, the next generation of jazz makers are like their predecessors, pushing the envelope, and this is a letter I love to read. Well done, expertly executed, making absurdity lose its sting to the sheer joy of beautiful music.