The title track of Keratoconus hits the ground running. Named for a chronic eye disease from which leader/trombonist JC Sanford suffers, the 93-second piece combines a spy-surf accompaniment and rhythmically tense horn melody. Sanford’s ’bone has a dirty tone and guitarist Zacc Harris kicks on some effects at one point that approximate a ring modulator. But the overt aggression ends with that song, followed by moods ranging from lush to humorous, with varied results.
Sanford, who studied with Bob Brookmeyer and has worked in New York on projects with John Hollenbeck and his own group Triocracy and the JC Sanford Orchestra, formed the quartet after relocating to his home state of Minnesota in 2016. The brother team of Chris and JT Bates handle bass and drums, respectively; Chris’ bowing gets an early showcase in the ballad “Umm, Yeah,” under Harris’ clean picking. A version of “All the Things You Are” slyly dispenses with the theme, preferring to focus on the leader’s gift for spontaneous melody.
With such a cohesive unit, it’s disappointing that “JT Rex” sticks so closely to its stop-start melody, punctuated by run-of-the-mill drum fills. That song’s surprise coda of power chords does point to Sanford’s wit, which fuels a few tracks. “Bates Brothers Boy Band” pits a disco beat against a “wrong” melody, which comes off more as simply aimless. “Selfish Shellfish” is annoyingly repetitive; the spoken coda, revealing how the title shaped the tune’s rhythm, isn’t worth the wait either. The quartet sounds better on “Robins in Snow,” the set’s other strong ballad, and “Zaccfarben,” in which guitarist Harris gets his Frisell on and the feel becomes a little rubato.
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