The difficulty with a project like this is simple: 100 albums is far too many to actually buy. At a $5 used sale, it’s still $500. Bought new, we’re pushing 2K. How do we approach accessing these albums? A variety of methods. I have been trying to use Spotify whenever possible, for the simple reason that Spotify will pay the artists. They won’t pay them overly well, granted, but they will pay them, which is not necessarily true of YouTube, and definitely untrue of torrents and other fileshares. I’ve been using Spotify when possible even for albums I myself own, because that extra nickel might mean something to those guys. To be sure, it’s an option which I’ve been really torn about for a long time, but for my purposes, it’s both the most ethical and the most beneficial option. I’m also not about to run away from making purchases as necessary… I’m planning my first CD run soon… but for the access, I have to be creative. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s got to be done.
The flipside of this, of course, is that sometimes the options are catch as catch can. Take Album #31. Originally, this was to be a recommendation, Karl Denson’s The Bridge. It was an unknown entity from a good friend, and it was exciting for it. In looking for the album, however, I could not track down anything complete. In retrospect, I should have just asked to borrow the album, but retrospect is a funny thing. Instead, I hunted for more info on Denson. I realized he was a jazz musician. I realized he was known for some fusiony music. I also got an idea of his back catalog, and chose a substitute I could locate. I was drawn to Blackened Red Snapper. Far be it from me to run from a good food reference.
Starting off, this feels like it’s destined to be experimental, improvisational jazz. Structures feel incidental on “The Roundabout,” which is jarring on an intro track. It’s an immediate disorienting feeling, and so I chose to steel myself. If the swirling solos of the opener were any indication, I’d be in for a challenging hour, but that’s what I wanted. I don’t have a lot of real jazz familiarity. I crave a challenge and newness. I was prepared for Denson to bring it on.
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, that moment never game. Sure, there’s clear improvisation throughout the album, but the songs feel like songs instead of an idea dump. “Honey Lemon Tea,” with its more laid back groove, feels much more put together, even if the bass soloing here feels like it’s ever threatening to unhinge the beginning of the track. It’s great to hear that kind of bass, though, especially so early in a track on an album featuring a saxophonist. There are a few uneasy shifts, but overall it sounds like exactly what I wanted from a song about tea: it’s soothing but a little zippy. “Once in a While… I Dream” takes things even smoother by the end, and yet it never feels overly long. Slower instrumentals can sometimes get too drawn out, but I was able to get comfortable in the groove here. ”West New York Avenue” is more challenging but still swings undeniably. You could dance to a jazz combo working this piece.
Really, the biggest surprise here is how difficult the album isn’t. “A Minor Skirmish” starts with a great 3/4 riff before getting into a a laid back swagger. Quite the opposite of its title, it sounds like a smart suit, tipped hat, and maybe even a polished walking stick. “Armageddon” seems similarly surprisingly non-dramatic. The album rolls on and ends up being just solid jazz. The most difficult moment on the album post-Roundabout is the title track. It’s not that ”Blackened Red Snapper” is a bad composition, as such, but it feels like music which would be played over the end credits of a TV show as the cast jokes and laughs, right before we’re told it was filmed in front of a live studio audience. The rest, however, is largely pleasant and increasingly blend-y. It’s good, but it’s good in a way that makes one realize how little vocabulary they have for jazz music. Jazz isn’t a genre where novices can just expound on anything, and it leaves me at a loss. I know what I like, but the words for it are just not there.
That’s a way of saying that Karl Denson leaves me ultimately pleased, and ultimately feels like that proper line is being walked between accessible jazz and creative jazz. It’s neither too cliche nor too cacophonous. It’s the Baby Bear’s Bed of jazz, maybe. It makes me want to go back and try to hunt down The Bridge. But it also makes me want to build a better understanding of the genre in general.