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May 2001

Russell Gunn
Smokin Gunn
HighNote Records

Trumpeter Russell Gunn spent most of the '90s disavowing the conventional wisdom given jazz musicians. He played on hip-hop sessions, concentrated on concept works as a composer and participated in such controversial sessions as Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize-winning opus Blood On the Fields. His first and last Atlantic release, 1999's Ethnomusicology, Vol.1, was wildly erratic, yet captivating because Gunn wasn't interested in reworking exhausted standards; he was penned and played improvised music that reflected his time and generation. Thus, it's almost a shock that Gunn has now turned to conventional hard bop with Smokin' Gunn. He's still following his own muse, though, having composed five of the date's nine tracks. In addition, what he did cover isn't "Stella By Starlight" or "I've Got You Under My Skin." Instead the list includes John Coltrane's "Crescent" and Cecil Brooks III's "Yvette."

Gunn has good chops and flair as a soloist. He's not the greatest technician; he sometimes fluffs notes or sounds ragged, especially on "Groid" and "The Beeach." However, like the late Lester Bowie, Gunn holds your interest because he's also capable of offering some compelling phrases or beautiful lines. His solos, even in lesser moments, retain an edge and his upper-register work helps him overcome shaky ensemble sequences. Gunn's brightest playing comes on uptempo tunes; he's less confident on ballads, but frequently salvages awkward periods with quick licks and twists. Gunn's frequent partner, alto saxophonist Bruce Williams, seems rather sedate on "El's Kitchen" and "Groid." He's more intense on "Memory of Waterford" and "The Beeach," displaying the fluency and poignant touches that grace Williams' own discs. Pianist Marc Cary qualifies as the most prominent member of the rhythm section, though Terreon Gully's nimble drumming quietly cushions some less than dazzling ensemble interaction midway through "Crescent." Cary's a good accompanist and better soloist; his octave leaps and fine phrasing elevate every selection, particularly the shorter pieces like "Amnesia" or "Delfeayo's Dilemma."

While my preferences for Gunn's music lean more toward his genre-bending sessions, he demonstrates he can tackle the established jazz menu on Smokin' Gunn. I hope now he'll now move on to Ethnomusicology, Vol. 2.

Originally published in May 2001
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