Release date: October 7, 2022
Label: SIMP Records
Ah-Bop is the latest album from star guitarist Gene Ess, and his first for four years. Ess is joined by two of New York’s finest instrumentalists – bassist Scott Colley and drummer Clarence Penn – for an inquisitive journey through the classic guitar trio format that takes in an eclectic variety of genres and forms along the way.
Originally hailing from Okinawa, Japan, Ess is no stranger to the limelight, as a former member of the Rashied Ali Quintet who has played alongside luminaries like Ravi Coltrane, Eddie Henderson, Carlos Santana, and Archie Shepp. On his previous album, Apotheosis, Ess’s band Fractal Attraction was described by Jazz Times’ Dan Bilawsky as “a unit of remarkable means and resilience.”
It’s been four years since Ess closed that cycle of albums, all released on the SIMP label. He returns with Ah-Bop – a refreshed appearance that treads new ground, marking the first time Ess has approached the guitar-bass-drums lineup that’s been tackled with so much variety by some of Ess’ favourite guitar players through history: John McLaughlin, Jim Hall, and Pat Martino to name a few. It’s been a musical itch Ess has been determined to scratch for a long time, a kind of musical apotheosis to follow his last album of the same name. “To me, the trio is a huge challenge, as the guitar is completely naked in the sonic landscape,” says Ess. “It’s harder for me than solo or duets, as the nature of the guitar makes it very difficult, so I was pushed by the challenge.”
All the tracks were composed as Ess waited in Tokyo until he could return to New York during the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. When he did eventually make it back to the US, he enlisted two of NY’s biggest hitters – Scott Colley on bass, alongside dummer Clarence Penn – to realise his vision. “Scott was the bassist on my first European tour with Tony Moreno and Ravi Coltrane in the mid 90s”, Ess elaborates. “He’s an amazing musician and a fantastic reader.” Meanwhile, Penn joins up with Ess following his work with the Fractal Attraction band. “Clarence brings his amazing sense of swing and this lightness of rhythm. He’s kind of like an orchestra in the background with quiet moments and explosive sections.”
Ess describes the whole album as a kind of jazz song cycle, a form from the world of Western classical art music popularized by Schubert that sees smaller pieces linked together by a thread of motives, rhythms and keys. The album begins with title track “Ah-Bop”, a piece dedicated to the great British jazz fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth, a key influence for a host of guitarists across rock, metal and jazz. Following a conventional hard-bop form, small intervals and impish give it a Monk-like quality, with Ess an agile and fluid voice through his choruses. “Waltz” continues the hard-bop theme on an icy, floating tune that really probes the form. One can hear Ess’ attempts at trifold listening on “Waltz”, a phenomenon he recently discussed on his YouTube series Divertimento, as he feeds back information from his fellow instrumentalists in near-real time.
“Yuki” is a given feminine name in Japan, and forms the title of the fourth track, a darkly melancholic melody that’s deeply pensive. “Array” goes in a completely different direction; Ess describes it as “an array of polytonal guitar over polyrhythmic bass parts.” An intense roast based on a quintuplet obstinate, it highlights a rock-ier side to Ess’s musical personality formed by listening to bands like Babymetal, and working with similarly inclined musicians like Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan. “Dark Blues” revolves around a classic West African ‘bembe’ rhythm, before “Crossing” lends a contrasting atmospheric space, sparse notes ringing clearly to create an eerie soundscape that sounds almost otherworldly.
“Trance” is ritualistic and intense, Ess’s guitar acting as a vessel for the composition’s high-spirited intensity, before “End Credits” provides an apt conclusion to the trio’s musical journey. Though the piece uses an insistent G natural figure throughout, it ends with a sense of openness: a question mark, rather than a full stop. It’s a ‘to be continued’, as Ess and the trio look to the future in this consummate formation.
Release date: November 6, 2018
Label: SIMP Records
Apotheosis, the fourth album from Gene Ess' quintet Fractal Attraction features Thana Alexa on vocals, Sebastien Ammann on piano, Yasushi Nakamura on bass, and Clarence Penn on drums. Apotheosis speaks to the astonishing quality of the spirit and of the ability of human beings to crush adverse circumstances in life, and rise above through inner transformations. Fractal Attraction - regarded as one of the most unique, and fresh ensembles on the jazz scene today - presents the timbral and textural exploration of the guitar and female voice that Ess has so carefully envisioned. The accomplished guitarists’ arrangements blend perfectly with detailed compositional structures that contain plenty of room for improvisation.
In his seminal work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949), American philospher, writer and lecturer Joseph Campbell defined apotheosis as “the expansion of consciousness a hero experiences when defeating his foe”. With Fractal Attraction, Ess has charted his own journey of navigating through life and approaching the state Campbell described, beginning in 2013 with their eponymously titled debut, and arriving at their latest project Apotheosis. While the group’s previous album Absurdist Theater imagines the hero grappling with internal roadblocks and emotions at the absolute horrors of the world, the music of Apotheosis represents the hero breaking through those obstacles - a feeling of joy permeates the album.
The quintet is a marvel of breathing as one and leaving all egos at the door in order to bring life to the leader’s vision. Each of the group’s albums have strived to deal with contemporary society in an engaging manner - a trait particularly displayed through “Same Sky”. Featuring Thana Alexa’s thought provoking lyrics, the vocalist laments on the current social climate. Her lyrics are a moving, quiet call for unity, and attempt to make sense of the ridiculous borders people erect regardless of the much common ground there is to be attained between humans. Amongst other stand out tracks from the album is “Tokyo Red” - a tune that aurally depicts the vibrant night scene that one could find moving through Shinjuku or Shibuya. The piece grooves with a ripping back beat, while manually layered distorted guitar and voice create a fascinating textural component. “Fireflies of Hiroshima” is inspired by the horrendous atomic bomb dropped during World War II and brings to mind the important and heart wrenching 1988 Japanese animated classic Grave Of The Fireflies. Firefly watching is also a popular pastime in Japanese summers. Alexa’s multi tracked harmony, Ess’ acoustic guitar, and Ammann’s flittering figures seem to summon not only the spirits of those lost, but the wondrous golden glow of fireflies on a slightly humid evening. The closing track “Two Worlds” features a galvanizing melody as if to say “this is the time” and makes clear that the hero’s consciousness has changed, has found triumph and has found a spot of joy in the world.
Through the moods and passion of the music, the guitarist, composer and bandleader hopes that the listener can find his or her own apotheosis. Gene Ess has created one of his finest statements to date with this release.
MORE ABOUT GENE ESS
Gene Ess Shimosato is a jazz guitarist, composer and music producer, active in the United States and primarily in New York. He has recorded and performed with the likes of Rashied Ali, Carlos Santana, Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Donny McCaslin, Tigran Hamasyan and Nicki Parrott. After graduating from high school, Gene studied classical music at George Mason University with concert guitarist Larry Snitzler. In 1984, Gene was awarded the “Outstanding Solo Performance Award” by Downbeat Magazine performing British composer Lennox Berkeley’s “Theme and Variations”. With the scholarship he earned, he proceeded to the Berklee College of Music. After graduating in 1990, he moved to New York City in 1991. In 2001, Gene released No One In Particular - a collaborative project with Rashied Ali. His 2009 album Modes of Limited Transcendence garnered overwhelming ratings all over the world. The album led him to receive the "Outstanding Jazz Performance Award" from American Performing Rights organization SESAC. Fractal Attraction is comprised of Gene as a leader, alongside participating members including Thana Alexa, Gene Jackson, Clarence Penn, Thomson Kneeland, Yasushi Nakamura, David Berkman, John Escreet, Sebastien Ammann, Manuel Valera and other top runners in the jazz world. Their debut, Fractal Attraction was released in 2013, followed by Eternal Monomyth in 2015 and Absurdist Theater in 2016.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Award-winning guitarist, Gene Ess, draws upon a diverse background to form his unique style.." Read the full Take Five q&a here.
JAZZ PODIUM (GERMANY)
"...immaculate modern jazz.." Read the full German review here.
TRAVIS ROGERS JR
THE JAZZ OWL
"Gene musically achieves the imagery he seeks to convey his message." Read the full review here.
"Throughout these eight beautiful pieces, the ensemble's considerate, reserved playing provides a sense of emotional directness that is refreshing in this age of rampant virtuosity." Read the full article here.
"There's much to admire in Ess' work with this band, but its greatest asset may simply be the way it presents the simpatico sensibilities of those who populate it. Five years and four albums into its development, Fractal Attraction remains a unit of remarkable means and resilience with room to grow." Read the full review here.
DEE DEE MCNEIL
"With this project, you will experience nearly an hour-long concert that is bound to invigorate and expand your consciousness." Read the full review here.
"A different kind of set that doesn't borrow from past spiritual jazz efforts.." Read the full review here.
"Leader Gene Ess plays guitar and synth as he brings together the pastoral team of Thana Alexa, Sebastien Ammann, Yosushi Nakamura and Clarence Penn to interpret his own rich compositions." Read the full review here.