Guitar-season continues on The Music and Myth as today I focus on the debut solo-work of a very talented Romanian musician (and on the man’s birthday no less), namely guitar-player and composer Marius Pop .
First Step is a record that came out in 2009 so it is by no means new. Still I wanted to write about it because I am in a phase of my musical “research” where I want to focus specifically on Romanian guitarists and see what my country has to offer in this department.This interest has been sparked by two things: the insightful interview I landed with guitar-legend Al Di Meola (which apparently I plug in every one of my articles) and the experience of a stellar performance from Horea Crisovan a while back. I already wrote about the very talented Nicu Patoi and the incredible Horea so let’s see what Marius has to offer.
So far Marius Pop’s biggest claim to fame is playing guitar for Smiley, a Romanian pop musician of questionable musical value. However, his solo-endeavors are fortunately well-anchored in the Jazz fusion genre. First Step is an album that was released under the moniker Marius Pop & The M Theory and it features a variety of very competent musicians like Joe Balogh, Oliver Bader, Radu Miculiță (guitars), Gabriel Drăgan, Marcel Moldovan (drums), Dan Georgescu, Radu Niculescu (bass) and Alex Racoviță, Mihai Ardelean (keyboard). The sheer amount of talent involved in this record should be more than enough to at least offer a comfortable diversity and range of styles, all held together by the common thread of Marius Pop’s songwriting (almost all of the ten tracks have been composed by Pop).
Before I start writing about the record itself I want to share with my readers a piece of information I’ve come across this summer, one that I found very interesting. A while ago I wrote about Turn of Phrase, a brilliant album by The Music and Myth’s favorite guitar-player, Paul Kogut. The record also featured Jazz-legends George Mraz and Lewis Nash. I found the album itself absolutely brilliant (in fact, it was hands down one of the best Jazz records of the year) but I was not a big fan of the rather precipitated beginning. I wrote:
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.
I’ve always emphasized in my articles the importance of structure and well-planned track placement so I always find it a bit disappointing when a record just sort of starts without giving the listener a proper introduction. Perhaps that has a lot to do with my profession. As a writer I am accustomed to the vital importance of a good opening line. The fate of your whole 600-page novel can hang on that one opening line in the first chapter so I have always had a hard time understanding why a work of music would not attribute the same structural importance to the first track. Paul wrote to me and offered some very interesting insight into the recording industry. Here’s what he had to say:
I dig what you’re saying about jumping in with no intro or build, I’ll generally open a concert that way. “So That Happened” [the opening track on Turn of Phrase] was a last minute addition to the record, inspired by a conversation with Steve Khan. I gave him a call a few weeks before the recording since he was familiar with the studio we were using. He answered the questions I had about floor plan and such, and then he offered this advice. “With George and Lewis on the record, it will probably get noticed by the program directors, but they’ll probably only listen to the first 30 seconds. If you can hit them with a concise statement right out of the gate, it will help with airplay” I didn’t have a tune that fit the bill, so I came up with a line on It Could Happen To You inspired by Steve’s tune Buddy System.
I found this explanation absolutely fascinating and it cleared up some confusion I had about opening tracks on certain records. It seems that sometimes a musician simply has to dive into the music head-first to get decent airplay. Makes sense. That being said if I were a program director and I only played the first 30 seconds of First Step (both the record and the track) I would probably not continue playing the rest. Unfortunately, I’d be missing out on some great music.
I am not at all a fan of the way the record begins. If this is your first interaction with Marius Pop and you are unfamiliar with the man’s extraordinary talent then the first few seconds, which intentionally sound crude and hard-edged, might instantly turn you off from the entire album. It would have been a fitting start for last week’s album but not this one. Nothing wrong with the track in itself, it’s a very decent tune which does a great job of showcasing the technique of the musicians, I just would have placed it somewhere else on the record, but maybe that’s just one of my quirks.
The album continues with “Groove Del Sol” where a funky and very well-inspired use of the bass instantly hooks the listener and makes them want to hear more (now this would have made a great opening track!). The record does take a bit of time to become comfortable with its sound and general direction, which often happens on a composer’s first outing. In that respect, it’s a bit of a slow starter. The first four tracks (“First Step”, “Groove del Sol”, “The Way It Is” and “Divide and Conquer”) are all good-quality songs that benefit from a great delivery but they do seem to lack a bit of personality which would have turned them from good to really great.
However, with “The Hacker”, a bluesy, catchy and well-executed song written by Joe Balogh -also the first truly memorable track – the album finally gains some serious momentum which it manages to keep throughout. “Hey Dude” introduces some elements of rock and entertains with cool interplay between drums and guitar while “Marbri” seems to borrow from Marius’ experience on the pop music scene with its easy-listening vibe. Normally that would make me instantly dislike the song but Marius pulls it off to perfection with his amazing mastery of the instrument and his feel for melody.
“Nefertiti” follows with shades of Al Di Meola – a great compliment, I feel, to any guitar-player, especially one so young – and it’s easily the best track of the bunch. “Liquid Sountrack” is smooth, with great timing and, again, slight hints of Di Meola on Consequence of Chaos (but maybe I’m just “in the zone”) and “Home” provides a short and delicate acoustic send-off for this well written and generally very fun record.
First Step is primarily a testament to Marius Pop’s enormous talent as a guitar-player. He is a very young musician who plays like a very experienced musician, wise beyond his years and with stunning technique and a flair for the instrument. As a songwriter, there is still room for growth as the record at times sounds a bit “vanilla”. Still, Marius Pop definitely takes a first step in the right direction and he will convince any listener of his of his talent as a guitarist and his potential as a composer. Seeing as how it’s been four years already, The Music and Myth hopes a sophomore release is in the making. Definitely looking forward to it!