By Jeff Cebulski
Alejandro Urzagaste’s Flow.
Subject to Change, 2019.
Alejandro Urzagaste, guitar
Bill Carrothers, piano
Dennis Carroll, bass
Goerge Fludas, drums
The addition/replacement of a musician can make a crucial difference in a group’s sound or approach. Think of Wilco after Nels Cline arrived. In the case of guitarist Alejandro Urzagaste’s quartet, the necessary replacement of a pianist has led to a remarkable sea change in its style, to the point where he created a new name for it, Flow, for his new album, Subject to Change.
Urzagaste’s first album Urban Intervals, released in 2012, featured the late authentic keyboardist Jodie Christian, along with the guitarist’s long running rhythm section of Dennis Carroll on bass and George Fludas on drums. Urban Intervals was a straight-up collection, much of it culled from Christian’s deep bop resources. However, as fate would have it, Christian passed away in February 2012, and Urzagaste needed another pianist to further his quartet visions.
The new album features not only a new keyboard muse, the versatile and experienced Bill Carrothers, but also a more cosmopolitan palate, given the range of Carrothers’ adaptive abilities. Urzagaste, a leader but not an ego-centric one, is willing and desirous to allow his stablemates the freedom to set the scenes upon which the guitarist creates his own conversations with melody and counterpoint. The result is a album that never settles for one genre or mode in its aspiration to entertain and inspire.
I was introduced to Carrothers in 1998, via bassist Scott Colley’s terrific album on Criss Cross, Subliminal, recorded three months after his first for Steeplechase, This Place, featuring the formidable talents of Chris Potter and Bill Stewart. That spectacular trio recorded two more pieces for Subliminal, but that album was dominated by the presence of Carrothers, who, stated Colley in the liner notes, is “very present…hears everything that’s going on, and adapts his voicings accordingly.”
Urzagaste first heard Carrothers on a generally little-known but still influential Stewart album, Telepathy. A subsequent Carrothers visit to the Green Mill led to a connection that ultimately led to the pianist’s joining his group.
On Flow, right away the change is noticeable. “1508” pushes forward with a modal, rhythmic density as Urzagaste picks his medody on top, before the song settles into a blues, providing solid underpinning to a voluble Carrothers solo that traverses the piano’s width. Then, a plaintive piece, “Colleville-Sur-Mer,” which seems informed by Carrothers’ interest in classical music. The interplay between Carrothers and Carroll is wonderful (the bassist shines throughout this record), creating a faintly dramatic landscape for Urzagaste’s statement. The artistic growth between his first two albums is evident here. The guitarist’s style is difficult to pin down—perhaps minimalist picking to amplify the theme, then embellishment by sparkling runs that demonstrate his prowess.
And, he can swing. The group’s rendition of “Little Melonae” testifies to that. While the new compositions are greatly appreciated, the band’s treatment of this and another bop classic, Monk’s “Nutty,” demonstrate that the best groups can elevate even the most played tunes. While Urzagaste generally plays within the melody line, the supporting cast enjoys the playground time. These are places where Fludas really goes for it, while Carrothers and Carroll prance at the edges, finding notes that we knew existed but needed translators to appreciate them. The second half of “Nutty” is pure synergy, an unexpected delight.
Other highpoints include another classical-influenced song, “For Better and For Worse,” which sounds like a jazz fugue initiated by Carrothers and attended to nicely by Carroll and Urzagaste; the tone-poem “1 (Angelico),” amplified by Carroll’s dramatic bowing; the intricate polyrhythms of “Hephaestian Dance Mask”; and “Chromatically Speaking,” where Urzagaste provides softly swinging polysyllabic expression, leading to another tasty Carroll solo before Carrothers intercedes with an elegant abstract statement.
What a fine album, a great way to begin a new year of Chicago jazz. Urzagaste’s wisdom is as fine as his talent, and one hopes Flow will create its own current, providing quality music not only in 2019 but also in the foreseeable future.
Urzagaste’s Flow will play a Subject to Change record release concert at SPACE in Evanston on Thursday, January 10, starting at 7:30. Tickets are $12 to $22 and are available now via the SPACE website and via Eventbrite.