Thursday, June 11, 2009

Matt Criscuolo and the Bigger-than-Life Alto Sound

There are so many releases out there in the Jazz zone lately that a.) one can be overwhelmed trying to sort through them, and b.) one can easily miss something worthwhile in the scramble. Thankfully we haven't missed the one up today. Melancholia (M Records) by Matt Criscuolo is indeed worthwhile. It is so for several reasons: 1.) He creates an album of standards/jazz standards without descending to generic radioplay-centered pap; 2.) He adds strings (a string quartet in this instance) without sounding like an old Wrigley Spearmint Gum commercial from 1959; 3.) He plays melodically without sacrificing improvisational integrity.

Criscuolo plays such a full-toned alto sax that for a few seconds on first listen I thought I was hearing a tenor. He gets the lower overtones to ring out along with the principal note in any given passage and presents to you a large, complex wave of sound to savor. He is joined by a quartet that is notable for the ageless Larry Willis on an exemplary piano spree. Willis sounds great, using modern voicings and a percussive attack to give this whole date a currency that Criscuolo wraps his sound in. Mr. Willis also handles the arrangements, and does well with that too. The strings never sound like a second thought, never as a syrupy mush that used to sell jazz albums to an ear-shy general public. Rather the strings bring in texture and fullness.

John Coltrane's Ballads album is a perfect example of a set that can be quite mellow, lush, lyrical and yet sacrifice nothing of the musical excellence of those involved. Melancholia does that too in its own way, though I am not implying that Criscuolo is the next Trane, at least not yet! The point is that the musical cushion comprising these tracks is not only very comfortable, it is very well-made.

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