Mestizo‘s a thoroughly commendable set from bassist Evan Salvacion Levine, who’s joined on his sophomore release as a leader by Matt Gold on guitar and Andrew Green on drums (on the bassist’s first, 2016’s Unsolvable Problems, he’s accompanied by pianist Lex Korten and drummer Kayvon Gordon). Mestizo is also the recording debut of Levine’s new trio project, and what a fabulous trio it is. Working through seven originals by the Chicago-based leader, the participants register less as a group of three individuals and more a symbiotic multi-limbed organism equally adept at executing material ferocious and lyrical.
There are moments on the release when Levine’s group calls to mind Bill Frisell’s early trio with Joey Baron and Kermit Driscoll, not in the way Gold’s playing suggests similarities to Frisell’s but in the way the members interact in the respective groups. In both cases, while the guitarist often carries the melody, the trio operates as a fully balanced unit where guitar, bass, and drums are equally critical to the group identity. Gold solos extensively but so does Levine (on both double bass and electric), the move again testifying to the equality in the roles adopted by the players. If Green doesn’t formally solo in the way of his bandmates, it doesn’t matter: Mestizo‘s the kind of set where all three are in a sense always soloing, given how elastically the material’s treated by all involved.
Opener “Age II” is memorable for the locomotive propulsion of Green’s drum pulse, but it’s Gold’s insistent guitar accents and the yearning melodic theme that are most swoon-inducing. Levine’s tender side comes to the fore during the nostalgic, ballad-styled “The Best Things Never Change,” its quieter pitch (an aggressive coda excepted) ideal for allowing the textural sensitivity of the players to be sampled. Powered by lightly swinging tom-tom patterns and characterized by an infectious, wide-screen feel, “Highways” takes to the open road for a breezy jaunt, the track apparently written on the road when Levine moved from Miami to Chicago.
The grittiest cut of the bunch (the title track notwithstanding, which often gets up to its own incredible heat), “Center of Gravity” bolts from the gate like a stripped-down Tortoise, all three digging into its funk-rock groove with fervour. With Green and Levine generating a punchy electric undertow and Gold endlessly strafing their muscular bottom end with melodic figures and rhythm accents, the cut elevates the album to an at times stunning level of intensity for almost eight minutes.
On the release’s inner sleeve, Levine clarifies that the album title is a term primarily used in Latin America and the Philippines to describe someone of mixed race and is therefore one with which the bassist, the son of a Filipino mother and Jewish father, identifies. More than that, he embraces it for the way it signifies openness to multiple cultures, experiences, and musical opportunities. That being said, while the listener will come away from Mestizo appreciative of that theme, the recording’s major takeaway is how incredibly dynamic the trio’s playing is and how strong the compositions are that Levine fashioned as springboards. As the breathtaking title cut so soundly demonstrates in its anthemic roar, Mestizo‘s fiery performances play like live tracks heavily workshopped prior to the studio session and laid down with the kind of combustible energy a band manifests on stage after performing together for a long stretch of dates.