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Unit 1-- Mark Egan / Karl Latham / John Hart

Unit 1 has been described as a "jazz-funk power trio," but it has a certain refinement that precludes bombast or overplaying, thanks to an acute rapport and the refreshingly original arrangements of well-known tunes on this live recording. Guitarist John Hart, an infrequent leader but sideman extraordinaire, gets a chance to shine and makes the most of it, and bassist Mark Egan and drummer Karl Latham more than hold their own, making for a well-balanced and always interactive musical flow. These three musicians' past credits are impressively wide-ranging, from the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Jack McDuff and James Moody (Hart), to Pat Metheny, Sting, and Gil Evans (Egan), and Johannes Mossinger, Joe Lovano, and Johnny Winter (Latham). The striking music comes from three 2008 performances at the club Bula in Newton, NJ, but has only recently been released on Egan's Wavetone label. Unit 1 should appeal to fans of jazz, funk, blues, and fusion alike.

Hart's twangy intro to "Old Folks" converts into his more fine-toned theme and variations probe of the melody, above Egan's occasional vamps and Latham's taut rhythms. Egan's solo is warmly lyrical, and is followed by the guitarist's dazzling, multi-faceted excursion, reminiscent of Mike Stern. A return to the theme only provokes still more breakneck flurries from Hart. The catchy vamp that began it all gets reworked in the end. A distortion laden opening by Hart sets up his unpredictable reading of "Willow Weep For Me," with shadings, asides, and rhythms that surprise and entice. Egan's thematic diversion is artfully emphatic. The concluding section finds the trio in the throes of contrapuntal banter, but like pieces of a puzzle fitting perfectly together.

Two Thelonious Monk tunes are revitalized. For "Epistrophy," Latham's alluring back beat figures and Egan's stalking bass evolve into the theme as envisioned by Hart. The guitarist's solo explores the composition's harmonies and idiosyncrasies with dynamic flair, rocking out passionately in the best jazz-rock tradition. Egan and Latham's supporting rhythms elevate his soaring flight even more, and the bassist and drummer's improvisations are singular examples of their individually vibrant approaches. "Bemsha Swing" is launched by Latham's jittery rhythms and Egan's fluctuating bass patterns, plus Hart's quick theme acknowledgement, in this overall unique treatment. Hart's ecstatic solo gets down and dirty with the blues, as Latham provides a variety of provocative cymbal colorations. Hart then comps for Egan's pulsating trip, before the drummer regales with his imaginative, intensely focused yet diverse perambulations that extend clear through the guitarist's fleeting reprise.

Egan generates that famous rhythmic design to begin Miles Davis' "All Blues," with Latham's scampering drums alongside as Hart enters to outline the sparse theme. Hart's solo builds momentum quickly from an understated start, sizzling in bluesy abandon above insistent bass and drums. Egan succeeds him aggressively, nearly overwhelming in his expressiveness. Trades between the three are almost stolen by Latham's crisply intricate constructs. Hart takes on the melody of Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" with faithful precision and spirit, although Egan and Latham have their own unorthodox ways with the calypso cadences. Hart utilizes fresh voicings and dancing elongated phrasings in his solo, while Egan's improv is a flawlessly realized take on the theme. Latham offers his succinct, crafty impression before Hart's right-to-the-point summation. "Mr. Clean," by jazz-funk ground breaker Weldon Irvine, is drenched in the composer's sensibility. The shifting rhythms, vamps, righteous phrasings, all out exaltations, and acid jazz guitar soundings, result in a riveting track. Egan's soulful, buoyant solo alludes to Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance" at one point.

Egan's bass injects the trio's version of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" with a novel rhythmic foundation, while Latham keeps it steady but is unable to resist a medley of counter rhythms. Hart's absorbing solo eats up the changes in an unrelenting, cascading stream of invention. The bassist's nimble-fingered fretless style gives his own enterprise an attractive tension. He and Hart then vamp at the outset of Latham's impeccable, thematically attached sortie, but wisely lay out for the duration. The standard "My One and Only Love" is the only selection on this CD that might be characterized as "tender." Hart's sweetly sensitive rendering of the melody segues into his lyrical, bluesy improv, containing a number of chordal effects and fleet extended lines. Egan paraphrases the bridge concisely prior to Hart's recap and touching coda. Latham's poised drum work is unobtrusive yet enhancing.

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Scott Albin