REVIEW BY: Michael Broyles
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/31/2009
The challenge, per se, of modern jazz is to remain new yet compatible. One certainly wants the music to be compatible with jazz’s rich history, yet one also does not want to simply rehash the bebop, hardbop, cool jazz, or fusion style. Since jazz has historically been a stirring of transnational elements, this challenge to contemporary jazz artists is often met by cohesively incorporating various cultural influences. In The Optimist, tenor saxophonist Stan Harrison achieves this to significant effect, taking elements of swing, big band, and orchestral music, mixing it with Middle Eastern/Southern European and Asian elements, and electrifying it.
The first song, “Breath After Breath,” appropriately sets the tone for the rest of the album. The song starts with a rhythmic, Chick Corea-ish piano flawlessly executed by Werner “Vana” Gierig. Then, the electronic drums enter, giving the listener something beyond traditional jazz. These are not the fusion electrics of the 1970’s, nor the hip-hop drums of the 1980’s, but a nod to the contemporary techno drums of European dance clubs. The flute, string, and synth-driven “On A Never Ending Day” contains a similar mixture. This song has elements of Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones but is set to a drumbeat and bass line that reminded me of my nights spent in European techno dance clubs. It’s groovy, modern, and devastatingly infectious.
Of the vocal tracks, my favorite is “Living Every Day Now.” Andy Vargas’ voice has great pop sensibilities and the song has an addictive melody. With an easily recognizable air, feel-good chorus, and pop saxophone solo, “Living Every Day Now” had the capability to be trite and pretentious (think “We Are The World”) but saves itself through experimental arrangement and enigmatic production. Plus, the piano part is just plain cool. When Vargas sings “One less moment I lay in bed/ One less cloud over my head/ One look back at what used to be my life/ I’ve been living every day now,” one can see a person struggling to embrace the Carpe Diem philosophy.
The most impressive aspect of The Optimist is Harrison’s arrangement capabilities. Harrison has arranged for Serge Gainsbourg, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and They Might Be Giants. He brilliantly shows off these skills on The Optimist. Take “The Road Back.” Consisting of a head-bobbing electronic backbeat, a mysterious melody, an enthralling saxophone solo, and ferocious string inserts, “The Road Back” is an exciting, fulfilling, and fearful journey to happiness. Kudos to Harrison for evoking such troubling emotional conflict.
The only song I did not like on the album was “Nothing Less Than You,” a forgettable smooth jazz concoction that does not fit with the rest of the album. With a pseudo-contrived melody and a messy arrangement, “Nothing Less Than You” is easily lost amongst the other, more engaging material.
I fondly remember my time spent in techno dance clubs, packed wall-to-wall with people, smelling of sweat and dance. It was exciting. My time spent in jazz clubs evokes much different emotions: serenity and pensiveness. I never thought I would hear music that would bring those two sentiments together. Then again, I had yet to hear Stan Harrison’s The Optimist.