JON MENGES — Spirit of 3, Spirit of 4 (review)

JON MENGES — Spirit of 3, Spirit of 4 album cover Album · 2023 · Post Bop Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
When exploring Jon Menges' latest jazz journey, "Spirit of 3, Spirit of 4," one can't help but feel they're leafing through a jazz aficionado's secret diary – a medley of reflections penned in smoky rooms where the trio is king and the quartet, queen. Menges plays the dual role of historian and futurist in this auditory exploration. Each of the twelve tracks whispers the lore of jazz's golden age while boldly professing a modern creed. The duality of three and four becomes more than mere numbers; they represent jazz's sacred geometry.

The trio pieces, stripped down, lay bare the bones of jazz—rhythm, and melody without the percussion's heartbeat. It's a high-wire act without a net, and Menges and his companions walk it with the ease of seasoned acrobats. The quartet numbers, on the other hand, are full-bodied libations, each instrument pouring into the next to create a cocktail of harmonious inebriation.

Before delving into the sinuous melodies and intricate rhythms that define "Spirit of 3, Spirit of 4," let's spotlight the whizzes behind the magic. Menges, the architect of this aural odyssey, leads with a trumpet's assertive whisper and a flugelhorn's mellifluous rumination. Pete McCann's guitar work is a display of six-string sorcery, while Evan Gregor on bass is the trio's anchor, bestowing each track with a deep, resonant foundation.

In the quartet configuration, Nathan Childers' saxophone is a cascade of woodwind wonder, providing a perfect foil to Menges' brass brilliance. Joe Fitzgerald, donning the bassist's hat in the quartet, and Robert Weiss on drums punctuates the quartet's offerings with rhythmic precision. Each artist, a master in their right, coalesces to form ensembles that breathe as one organism—the first six tracks as a trio's intimate gathering, the other half as a quartet's complex conversation.

Let's take "Anchor in the Path" – it's a labyrinthine dance between the trio of musicians, where Menges leads with a trumpet's clarion call. McCann's guitar solo is excellent, his ideas are fluid, and his vocabulary is based on the jazz tradition of bop and modern jazz. Gregor's bass is rich in its sound, and his support is rock solid for both McCann and Menges. Menges' solo is melodic, and he is a master at developing motivic ideas across the harmonic structures. One can envision the spirited discussions of a late-night jazz haunt, as notes replace words, and the conversation deepens with every solo.

In "Tree of Hope," we encounter jazz's sacred geometry manifest in auditory form—a symbiotic relationship between rhythm and melody that feels both ancient and innovative. Evan Gregor initiates the piece with double stops that serve as the roots from which this tree of melody grows. The folk-inspired thematic development traverses the spectrum of jazz's rhythmic landscape, with a form characterized by a medium straight-eight A section contrasted by a B section that swings. It's in this song that we feel the push and pull of temporal currents, as time signatures shift with the ease of a seasoned navigator changing course—here in ¾, now in 4/4—each beat and bar tracing invisible shapes in the listener's imagination.

McCann and Gregor are the musical geometers here, drawing lines and angles with their instruments to map out the tune's structural elegance. Menges, with his horn, plays over these shapes in a solo spiraling like golden ratios within the tune's architecture. His approach to motivic development is both mathematic and magical—calculating intervals and note choices with a geometer's precision, yet delivering them with the passion of a poet. This balance of technical skill and emotive power is what builds the energy of "Tree of Hope" into a living, breathing organism. The track embodies the sacred geometry of jazz—where the sum is indeed more significant than its parts, creating a tapestry of sound that is as viscerally satisfying as it is intellectually compelling.

"Coqui" is Menges and his quartet, taking us through an auditory landscape that is as enchanting as the song of its namesake. This track's foundation is a riff-based melody, relaxed yet precise, demonstrating the power of restraint and groove in jazz. The two-horn frontline, with Menges and Childers, presents this melody with style and rhythmic acumen.

Fitzgerald and Weiss lay down a swing that is anything but rushed. Their command of the minor blues changes is like watching a master painter move his brush with deliberate strokes—each one contributing to the greater whole without any need for haste. This rhythmic feel is the backdrop to creating the essential character in the narrative of "Coqui."

As Childers' tenor saxophone comes into the spotlight, his melodic solo speaks with the tenor's rich, warm tones, telling a story that requires no words—only feeling. When Menges joins, his trumpet's guide tones weave through the music, adding layers of complexity that feel as natural as leaves on a vine. His approach to his solo is distinctly personal; each note articulated with clarity, each glissando an echo of a coqui's own slide from note to note, each phrase delivered with a signature unmistakably Menges.

The mood remains consistently relaxed, a laid-back joy that swings without strain, swings without stress. Fitzgerald's bass solo continues this narrative, his melodic sensibilities speaking volumes in the spaces between notes, where the true essence of swing often resides.

In "Coqui," we're reminded that in the hands of jazz musicians of this caliber, there's no need for the frenetic or the overly complex to achieve emotional impact. Instead, there is a profound beauty in the swinging, relaxed cadence of a night well spent in the company of great music and musicians. It is a piece that takes time to get to the end, but enjoys every beat of the journey there.

Each composition, a polygon of sounds, mirrors a facet of jazz's vast panorama, with Menges as the architect employing the compass of his writing to draw arcs of improvisation and angles of melody. In "Spirit of 3, Spirit of 4," we are offered a space to revel in the elegance of jazz geometry, where every note and nuance forms part of an infinite pattern boundlessly expressive and meticulously ordered.

As the final notes of "Spirit of 3, Spirit of 4" resonate, the listener is left contemplating the sacred geometry that underpins this masterful jazz narrative. Jon Menges, with his adept ensemble, constructs a musical mosaic where the shapes and patterns of jazz's rich history are reimagined within contemporary lines and contours. The album, with its meticulous balance between trio and quartet, delineates a geometric progression—from the individual point of a solo note to the complex plane of harmonic interplay.
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