Randy Napoleon’s reputation as a steadfast traditionalist with a predilection for well-defined, lyrical guitar lines has largely come via his work as a sideman over the past couple of decades. His contributions as player and arranger to several of Freddy Cole’s most recent albums—and, before that, Michael Bublé’s—have been unfailingly valuable: Napoleon’s input helps give shape to whatever situation he finds himself in. His albums as a leader have also been strong, melody-centric affairs, and this latest is no exception. You wouldn’t call Napoleon a dare-taker, but he’s not trying to be one; he’s content to offer smart, sophisticated arrangements of original compositions and standards performed with class, flair, and first-rate accompanists. For these 13 tracks, he doesn’t settle on one configuration. The lineup ranges from duo (an original with pianist Xavier Davis; Hammerstein-Kern’s “The Song Is You” with fellow guitarist Jocelyn Gould) to trio and larger, horn-infused numbers.
The latter approach is used on the album’s opener—a sweet, swinging take on Brian Wilson’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (Napoleon has previously visited the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds for “God Only Knows”)—and, among other tracks, the driving “Mr. Smith,” which allots fellow Detroit scenester Rodney Whitaker formidable double-bass solo space. Whitaker also shines on “Saber Rattle,” a sextet number written by the guitarist, who takes his most incendiary solo of the album here, as does pianist Gerald McDowell. Just as effective, however, are the easier-going tunes: Rodgers and Hart’s “I Married an Angel” and Napoleon’s own “How It Might Have Been” keep it simple in the unencumbered trio format, each providing ample opportunity for Napoleon to demonstrate his mastery and inviting style.