Monday, June 18, 2018

The Richard Shulman Group's Turned into Lemonade

Last week was pretty chaotic and disruptive and eventful. I started off breaking in a new computer after the old one--with its slowly dying power supply--finally gave up the ghost. That always throws me off considerably, which has something to do with my status as an introvert who constantly works hard to get things just right. I went to Toronto over the weekend, a good thing of course, but anytime I whip out my passport I feel like I've gone on a major adventure...even if the so-called exotic international locale is only 181 miles from my front door. When I returned yesterday afternoon, my mailbox was stuffed with 14 CDs and 2 LPs, so once again the review pile is growing out of control. I feel like today is the day when I can finally get settled in with all the newness--which includes finalizing my sound system and finally getting my Roon software installed so that I can start organizing all my digital files, downloads and Tidal subscription.

Today, in other words, is a good day for a capricious cannonball into that burgeoning pile of music, and it's reassuring to begin with music that's so lithe and pleasant and calming. The Richard Shulman Group is a small and lively quartet that doesn't have an unusual angle or intricate theme behind their performances. Pianist Shulman, along with sax player Jacob Rodriguez, bassist Zack Page and drummer Rick Dilling, concentrate on lush melodies that are low on tension and high on a rare energetic beauty. A year ago I might have made a wisecrack about this type of music being more suited to a cruise ship than an honest jazz club. My first impression, after all, was "light and breezy." Considering I just spent so much of my review of Andy Zimmerman's Half Light talking about my fondness of sad music, you might expect me to damn this album with faint praise. I won't.

Part of the reason is these 14 original tracks, all composed and arranged by Shulman, have a somewhat cleansing effect, like sleeping in your own bed after a long and exhausting journey. These four musicians are certainly making lovely music, but they do it with confidence and skill that acts as the perfect antidote to ambition for its own sake. There's a flawlessness to these performances, and while that can be a bad thing in a genre that actively celebrates the crossing of new frontiers, there's no denying that there's a time and place for safe harbors.

Another plus is that the sound quality is top notch, especially when vocalist Wendy Jones joins in on "The Gifts You Gave to Me," "Homage to Pharoah" and "Finding Peace." Her presence almost provides an opportunity for a double-take--she breaks through the sweetness and light with a knowing and sultry richness that makes your ears perk. When she's not hanging around the microphone stand, the focus shifts to the fluid piano work of Shulman himself, who claims Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny and Bill Evans, among others, as inspirations. The sound of his piano is substantial, grand even, and it's the trusty foundation underneath the perfect soundtrack for a well-needed return to normality.

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