I’ve recently realized that it’s been an insanely long time since I focused on a guitar-driven record, especially given that the guitar is my favorite instrument (very original, I know, but what can you do when you’ve been raised on Hendrix, Dire Straits, Led Zep, Gary Moore and SRV). It was a stroke of luck that I should come across Paul Kogut’s Turn of Phrase since I can’t think of a better album to write about after a long guitar dry-spell.
Turn of Phrase is Kogut’s third release on the Blujazz label and this time he is backed by incredibly accomplished bassist George Mraz and Drummer Magazine’s MVP of 2009, Lewis Nash. If you’re an ECM guy like me you might have heard Mraz on John Abercrombie’s Arcade, M or Abercrombie Quartet (late 70s to 1980) or perhaps Richard Beirach’s Elm (1979). If not, maybe you know him from his many collaborations with the likes of Oscar Peterson, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Stan Getz, Charles Mingus and Dizzy freakin’ Gillespie among (many many) others.
As far as Lewis Nash is concerned, if you’ve been listening to Jazz at all in your life there’s a good chance you might have stumbled across one of the over 400 recordings the man has appeared on throughout his career (and if you’re not a Jazz fan you’ve probably heard him on your Bette Midler or George Michael records). Given the pedigrees of the band it comes as no surprise that Turn of Phrase is a record for purists.
Kogut, Mraz and Nash deliver a work where the main focus is on the individual virtuosity of the veteran musicians and the many nuances of their respective tools of the trade. The three instruments are played to cohesive perfection while at the same time managing to maintain and develop their individual character. In other words they mix well together but also manage to stand out on their own, always a sign of a very solid recording though you would expect nothing less from the very experienced trio.
The record begins abruptly with the track “So That Happened” wasting no time on intros or build, not usually my favorite approach but very effective when handled correctly. Here it serves to exemplify the aforementioned cohesive nature of the album as the band goes straight to work and creates a rhythm and a relationship that is maintained throughout the generous eleven tracks.
The whole album is, in my opinion, a very clean example of what a guitar/bass/drums recording should sound like, with each instrument doing its part. Kogut’s guitar and Mraz’s bass effortlessly and gracefully play off each other transitioning smoothly as they switch the “lead” in this dance of strings while the drums of Lewis Nash provide the “muscle”. This is Jazz 101 and if you’ve never listened to a Jazz recording before, this one is a great example of why we Jazzheads are loyal to this genre. Check out the second track, “About You”, for an absolutely flawless construction and perfect symmetry, from the drums introducing the track, to the bass solidifying it at the middle and Kogut’s intense playing in the closing seconds providing a very pleasant “aftertaste”.
The layout of the album is reminiscent of old vinyls. Its structure suggest a two-part construction, with “Days of Wine and Roses” finishing off the perceived first part and “Sister Cheryl” (with its awesome drum solo at the beginning) ushering in an imagined part two.
While Mraz and Nash offer excellent support on their respective instruments it is, understandably, Kogut’s guitar that sets the mood of the songs, a mood that ranges from bluesy playfulness (“Know It? I Wrote It”, “Sister Cheryl”) to contemplative charm (“Body and Soul” – shades of Ray Crawford in “Blue Valentines” and SRV in “Lenny”) to songs that sound like (and probably are) impromptu jam-sessions (“Turn of Phrase”, “Especially When it Rains”).
The cover songs are delivered with great love and respect and Kogut gets his “private moment” with his guitar on the “Wayne Shorter Solo Medley”, a track that could not and should not have been missing on a record such as this.
Overall, like many quality works, Turn of Phrase does not offer instant gratification. If you’re not necessarily a Jazz aficionado and are thus not accustomed to picking up the subtleties of a work such as this you might get a tendency to “tune out” after a while and it would be a damn shame for this record to be reduced to nothing more than “background” music.
Instead, I suggest taking an hour to just focus on it; listen to it with your eyes closed and try to single out the instruments and picture the musicians playing them. This will, at the very least provide a wonderful opportunity for meditation and, at best, offer you a better understanding of this type of music as you bask in the soothing sounds of this piece of instrumental excellence .