Guitarist, composer, arranger and educator Gene Ess, has been methodically building a diverse catalog, both as a player and composer, which draws upon a diverse background to form his unique style. Ess’ early years were spent studying classical piano. However, growing up on a US Air Force Base on Okinawa, Ess received a mix of influences and was exposed to the indigenous music of Okinawa and the pop and jazz music coming from the clubs and solders on the base. Ess showed an early affinity to music, performing in clubs and festivals all around Okinawa at the early age of 14. His intense love of music allowed him to receive a scholarship to attend the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston and private studies with Jerry Bergonzi and Charlie Banacos, Ess graduated from Berklee Magna Cum Laude.
Since moving to New York in 1981, Ess has worked with Rashied Ali’s (John Coltrane) quintet, touring globally and recording a well-received album No One in Particular. Ess has played with: Carlos Santana, Ravi Coltrane, Lonnie Plaxico, Archie Shepp, Matt Garrison, Reggie Workman, Dave Liebman, Al Foster, Harvie S, Donny McCaslin, Danilo Perez, Killer Ray Appleton, Eddie Henderson, Scott Colley, Gene Jackson, David Berkman, Ari Hoenig, Rudy Royston, Nicki Parrott, James Weidman, Thana Alexa, Thomson Kneeland, Slide Hampton and Tigran Hamasyan. Ess’ 2009 album, Modes of Limited Transcendence, was warmly received globally and won the prestigious 2010 SESAC Outstanding Jazz Performance Award. A Thousand Summers (2012), featured Nicki Parrott on vocals and focused on songs from the jazz canon creatively arranged by Ess and Thomson Kneeland.
Fractal Attraction (2013) is Ess newest collection of compositions that features a veteran quartet of working New York musicians with Gene Ess on guitar, Thana Alexa on voice, David Berkman on piano, Thomson Kneeland on bass, and Gene Jackson on drums. Ess continues to explore the possibilities of the human voice in the jazz ensemble with Thana Alexa being used pre-dominantly as an instrument (singing syllables instead of words) to blend with the guitar to deliver an unique color to the melodies. The music contained within Fractal Attraction is deeply rooted in the jazz tradition with a strong and focused push to evolve the music forward with a unique language that is vibrant.
“Silver’s Fate” starts with Kneelend’s bass establishing a clear 9 feel, followed by a unison angular melody of guitar and voice. Alexa’s scatting solo is full of embellishments and digs deep into the rhythmic foundation provided by Jackson and Kneelend. An interlude of creative guitar voicings between the guitar and voice melodic figures sets the mood for Ess’ guitar solo. The guitar tone is rich and dark, but not so much as to be unclear, Ess’ lines are full of intellect and heart patiently building his themes to a logical climax and conclusion for the passing of the baton to Berkman’s piano solo. Berkman’s solo is short, but full of energy and a creative juxtaposition of chordal patterns with melodic burst.
“Blues for Two” is mid-tempo swinger that lives between two tonality centers, with a straight-eighth bridge giving a nice rhythmic variety and augmentation to familiar blues form. Berkman’s solo seemed to be inspired by the popping cymbal work of Jackson as the two flowed through the form. Ess’ solo is a study in creative chromatics and is followed by a succinct statement from Kneelend’s big bass sound.
Ess shows off his pen work with “Ascent,” which has a great solo piano intro by Berkman. The development of a theme over time and with various colors seems to be the goal of this Latin-grooved composition. The minor color is keep throughout the story of introspection with Ess delivering an brilliant solo that continues to keep the melody development theme front and center.
Overall Fractal Attraction is a very intelligent collection of compositions that simultaneously respects the history of the jazz language while pushing the vocabulary forward. Fractal Attraction has a coherent style and compositional elements that allow the group to speak as one cohesive unit. Ess is as dazzling a player as any six stringer (or seven) on the scene today, but this music is not all about chops and intellect, every note on this recording serves the composition. With Fractal Attraction, Gene Ess absolutely transcends.
H. Allen Williams
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