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A review of Damian Erskine’s “So To Speak”

Damian Erskine: So to SpeakWow, I love this record! Portland, Oregon resident and No Treble contributor Damian Erskine has produced an essential record that’s a real joy to listen to. So to Speak combines odd meters, Afro-Cuban percussion, passionate playing and carefully crafted arrangements to create a fine jazz fusion record. Damian composed all the tunes and his rich, sonorous bass playing is at the heart of this record. His playing is fluid and supple, rhythmically charged, enlivening and individual.

The bass playing supports the tunes and the grooves wonderfully throughout. The core band consists if Reinardt Melz’s powerful but sensitive drumming,’s Rafael Trujillo’s exciting percussion, Chris Mosley’s lucid guitar and Ramsey Embick’s limber piano. Some of the tunes are enriched by horns and additional percussion; the horn arrangements by John Nastos and Jason Dumas contribute greatly to the atmosphere created by the music.

“Inside Out” has a convoluted meter and grooves deeply with a deep afro-cuban feel. Melz drums fabulously and Erskine’s exquisite time feel is in evidence in his great bass playing. The guitar sings: the bass deeply swings and the montuno influenced piano joins with the percussion in building the excitement. The track features dark brooding guitar figures, menacing cop-show horns and a light dancing release between piano, bass and percussion which contrasts with the darker sections. A tasty, oblique guitar solo and a dramatic piano solo leads to an ecstatic drum solo over throbbing bass and colorful percussion.

“Fif” starts, perhaps a little surprisingly, in 15/8. This band never sounds academic though; they generate beautiful, uninhibited, natural sounding time-feels. The groove begins- and this band grooves from the first beat-and the piano adds shards of chords before Damian plays a short, sweet melodic solo before the theme – a sinuous, delightful melody voiced by piano and upper register bass. Damian plays some wondrously loose-limbed and fluid bass improvisations before a timbale break announces a shift to 5/4 (again with a righteous afro-cuban groove) and Mosley is off on guitar with the band dancing like a Santana band in a parallel universe: soulful guitar, driving odd meter percussion, rich piano chords and lithe, succulent bass. Erskine has a way with a repeated line, subtly varying it like all the great bassists and building momentum creating a great platform for Mosley to enjoy. The 15/8 melody returns and the rhythm section take it out for a dance as the track closes.

“Kaluanui” is back in the land of 4/4. Erskine plays a memorable, catchy bass line that bass players will soon be trying to copy. It’s a great soulful tune..can’t wait to hear it in the summer sunshine. Guitar and keyboards play the melody as the bass slips and slides like butter all around the groove. This is old school jazz funk but with some stimulating jazz harmonies. This is a record you can’t keep still too.

“American Gyro” is a different proposition again. There is propulsive drumming from Melz and a lithe bass wizardry from Erskine that bubbles and simmers constantly. Over this, Mosley gets to play a languid guitar theme. Mosley then plays washes of ambient guitar over an outrageous bass groove. Congas build the intensity as Mosley lays down loops of guitar over the hypnotic and kaleidoscopic bass groove. Erskine shows he has all the virtuosity of today’s bass-stars but also the musicality and the awareness of the big picture that makes for a great listening experience.

“Light” is a memorable ballad. The atmosphere is set by sumptuous but light drums and percussion and expansive piano chording. A lyrical melody is voiced by soprano saxophone and piano with beautiful bass support. As with so many of these composition, the arrangement and the development of themes and motifs is outstanding. Ramsey Embick plays a romantic piano solo over sonorous bass and sensitive percussion. Typically, I didn’t even notice that the piece was in 5 at first – so organic and musical is the record’s use of odd meter. Erskine plays a short, heartfelt bass solo that had me dancing in my chair to his phrasing and the melody returns.

“Aslant” begins with ‘ting-tinga-ting’ ride cymbal and then calls the listeners bluff as instead of announcing medium tempo swing it launches a propulsive 6/8 beat which the musicians dance around as guitar and piano lay out an intricate melody. Erskine makes wonderful percussive use of harmonics in his driving and busy line as Embick lays down a Tyner-esque solo over the tremendous groove with Metz especially enjoying himself. We are treated to another piece of bass solo architecture from Erskine and a joyous ending as the drums solo over the percolating bass and percussion.

“Cabrerina” is a dark, mysterious tune. It has a filmic quality. A soulful piano solo is punctuated by apposite percussion fills. Piano sidesteps build intensity as the band grooves as one. There is some stunning bass work with slid harmonics and outrageous runs leading into a short melodic bass feature. Congas solo delightfully and the dark horn-led theme returns.

“Creep”, the final track, features a spacious, slow moving theme over light but intense bass and percussion groove. Metz has a whale of a time over washes of sound before Mosley gets to wail over Erskine’s ostinato which builds momentum sparring Mosley to ecstatic moments as he gets the freedom to explore the space provided. Electric piano leaps like an excited puppy over the rich, churning sounds and the record heads towards its conclusion over Erskine’s intense and stalwart bass groove.

Damian has such a refreshing and individual bass style. I thought of Jaco, Linley Marthe, Richard Bona and others but he certainly has his own voice and is someone who, make no mistake, it’s time you checked out. But this is not just a record for bassists. This is simply a great record.

The line up:
Damian Erskine – bass
Reinhardt Melz – drums, percussion
Ramsey Embick – piano
Chris Mosley – guitar
Rafael Trujillo – percussion

with:
John Nastos – tenor saxophone
Jason Dumars – soprano saxophone
Pal Mazzio – trumpet
Derek Rieth – percussion

For more on Damian, visit his web site. You can order So To Speak from CD Baby.

Editor’s note: Damian is a regular contributor here on No Treble, and in case you Phil’s enthusiasm about this new album didn’t come through loud and clear, we’ll say this: Damian’s contributor status had no influence on the review.