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Chris Cheek: Saturday Songs

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A history of the pedal steel guitar in jazz wouldn’t make much of a book. Basically, no one besides Buddy Emmons, Speedy West and a handful of others has ever played anything remotely jazzy on the instrument. Maybe that’s because its twangy timbre is so closely associated with country music. In any case, that very foreignness to what we usually consider jazz must have had something to do with why tenor saxophonist Chris Cheek chose to hire Spanish pedal steel player David Soler for his new quintet. It’s a bold move that works like a charm.

Admittedly, things do sound a little wacky when Soler first swoops in on Saturday Songs’ opener, “String Finger,” but you can blame cultural conditioning for a good part of that reaction. Before long, all those plangent glissandi fit in just fine. It helps that Cheek has written a bunch of nifty zigzag melodies, like “Ginger Something” and “Bucky’s Blues,” that are often reminiscent of Steely Dan-a band fond of jazz changes and the pedal steel-but truth be told, Soler’s elastic comping sounds perfect on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Forever Green,” too, performing roughly the same role that a Hammond organ would.

The open vistas suggested by Soler bring out Cheek’s thoughtful side, while guitarist Steve Cardenas and bassist Jaume Llombart keep the grooves percolating alongside drummer Jorge Rossy, who triples on vibes and marimba. The latter’s creative stickwork is heard to best effect on the exotic-sounding title track, which incorporates a theme employing Olivier Messiaen’s nine-note Mode 3 scale-probably the first time a pedal steel’s played that, too.

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