Pianist Michael Weiss' Soul Journey shows contemporary writers and players can play, for lack of a better term, mainstream jazz that's forceful, distinctive and exciting. Weiss employs a three-horn frontline plus bass, drums and percussion while ably handling the additional tasks of leading the band and contributing crisp solos as well as flamboyant accompaniment and transition statements within sharp arrangements. Weiss has crafted nine pieces that range from the darting, attacking edge of "Optimism" and "The Prophecy" to the shorter, almost rock-influenced "Second Thoughts," the flickering, expressive "Orient Express" and the combative "The Cheshire Cat." Weiss doesn't just string passages together and trot out band members for solos; his pieces are smartly crafted, with equal emphasis placed on collective sections and individual moments. "El Camino," for example, contains both a strong trombone solo from Steve Davis and stirring counterpoint and exchanges between Davis, trumpeter Ryan Kisor and alto saxophonist Steve Wilson. The title track and "Orient Express" are less dashing, more lyrical pieces, yet Wilson, Kisor and Davis still offer impressive statements, even when given less time and space.
Weiss also isn't afraid to use the electric piano, an instrument that's essentially AWOL in current jazz circles. His swirling, edgy playing on "Soul Journey" is a reminder that during the fusion era there was real improvising and extensive playing done on the Fender Rhodes. "La Ventana" crisply updates the samba, punctuated by tantalizing percussion from Daniel Sadownick. He, bassist Paul Gill and drummer Joe Farnsworth complete things on the lower end with distinction. Weiss' arrangements usually have Gill squarely in the middle of the sound stage, with Farnsworth sometimes stepping out for more explosive contributions, especially on "Orient Express," but otherwise anchored alongside Sadownick.
While there's an obvious nod to the music of Art Blakey and Charles Mingus, Michael Weiss' compositions bear his unmistakable stamp and signature. The music on Soul Journey has warmth, integrity and, above all, originality.