Sandbox and Sanctum, Song Cycle for Quartet
Guitarist Gene Ess is a relaxed, gentle player. "Baptisma Pyros" provides a good example of how this quartete works. Ess plays a dancing theme lightly while Gene Jackson gets heavy on the drums, Harvie S plays solid and swinging bass and Donny McCaslin swoops in with brawny, rippling tenor lines. Ess plays heavy electric chords that sound like John Scofield in slow motion. This is a simple-seeming set wiht a good bit of sbstandce to it.
D. Oscar Groomes, O's Place Jazz Newsletter
3 out of 4
Gene gives us a collection of eight fusion/neobop tunes with melodies emanating from his guitar and/or Donny McCaslins tenor sax. Drummer Gene Jackson and Harvie S (b) round out the quartet. They stand out on "Baptisma Pyros". There is a cooler feeling to many of the songs. "Ryo" is an example" that makes this a relaxing session. "Sun Matsuri" is among the best tracks with all of the musicians blending well.
J Sin, Smother Magazine
"Sandbox and Sanctum" is progressive free-form jazz with striking basslines and a drummer who has really sweet chops. Fusing time signature changes with saxophone driven jazz, Gene Ess lives up to the pun of its moniker ingeniously composing songs with wild arrangements and crafty breaks. It's the perfect album to lean back in your comfy chair and read a book, or do something more proactive like entertain some guests.
Egbert, Jazz Now - Outer Rings Section
You like to think that eventually all the great voices will be unearthed, and all the notes will be played. I suppose then we'd just have to go back to ragtime and start all over again. Unless, of course, Dixieland came first. Did it? But then somebody like Gene Ess comes along, and you realize there's a way to go yet before every nuance has been explored and every possible combination of notes has been played. Thank heaven! Saves me having to go to the New School and take a composition or arranging course.
Mr. Ess is worth waiting for in that he knows his history, and he knows what was recently attempted (his hollow-bodied Yamaha guitar has some of John Abercrombie's gentleness and an equal dollop of Pat Martino's tart humor) as well as an idea of the success and drawbacks of recent experiments. This is yet another of those guitar/sax/bass/drums quartets (see a recent review by yours truly in these e-pages concerning the redoubtable Perry Conticchio, for example). Maybe the piano is falling out of favor.
The combination of knowledge, chops, and a light touch for melody (having the current era's middleweight champ, Don McCaslin, on tenor and soprano saxophones doesn't hurt either) makes for an excellent addition to the new impressionistic strain in the music of late (Dean Taba and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee). Thoughtful, well-constructed solos demark the exquisite "Baptisma Pyros" (an island in the Aegean Sea?), quiet and unassuming near to a fault while drummer extraordinaire Gene Jackson cuts up scandalously.
Some may find Jackson, who clearly never met a paradiddle he didn't like, overbusy and domineering. I'm frankly high on his swinging, Tony Williams-like discernment of space and time. Astutel Jackson challenges Ess's mid-on statement in "Baptisma," goosing him to tremolo his notes and twin them with McCaslin. Nobody will ever mistake Ess for Hendrix but there is some definitely magisterial string-bending from Gene E at the close of a very rewarding workout.
No Jazz album from this mindset is complete without at least one ballad, and on this one "...for a Swordsman" has Ess on acoustic Spanish guitar, bassist Harvie S at middle distance and pensive, Jackson nicking off the rhythm matrix at an easy half lope and McCaslin largely laying out early.
Ess' taste for melody is elusive and requires many listens to sink in. Once McCaslin finally gets his solo he accesses a bit of the late Dexter Gordon's soundworld, coming close to quoting Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa" and Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" but never quite doing so. I can dig it. At this remove from the founding days you have no need to overplay your hand.
"Ask the Guru" must be about a very hip old fellow sitting on a mountain somewhere that's not very far from a really good Jazz club; well, shimmying like one's sister Kate is purportedly good for the hips. Lovely gnarled melody, Jackson taking it at a medium trot, and Swartz opens with a shuffling, bluesy statement that puts me in mind of late Mingus. Plucked like a master. And there's a lot more good stuff too.
You would be hard pressed to find
a wittier release this year (I'm cheating just a bit, as it has only now as
I write this been 2006 for about ten seconds). Six months from now, I'm certain
I'll be able to say the same thing, though.
Clive Griffin, Jazz Improv. NY
The album opens with a deep, expanding long tone-with a compelling gong-like, tympani, bowing quality. "Free 2 Fast" evolves into an up-tempo, and very loose, swing groove. Ess plays a driving eighth-note line. Jackson catches all of the nuances. Then McCaslin is in on tenor sax-in unison with Ess for a moment, to restate the theme. That sets the stage to launch Ess on his first solo excursion. He swings solidly, delivering bursts of eight note lines, punctuated by tasteful use of space, and Jackson's responses on
drums. McCaslin steps in to create a surging, toe-tapping improvisation, looping and loping magnificently, throughout the register of the horn. It is abundantly clear from the writing, ensemble and solos on this very first track, that Ess' Sanctum and Sandbox is stunning on many levels. Ess leads the group into a more relaxed tempo on "Ryo." The melody is underscored by a Bossa type groove. McCaslin takes the first solo-and expectedly, creates another beautiful story, supported by Ess' apropos accompaniment.
Ess follows with a thoughtful and engaging exploration. "Ballad For A Swordsman" provides a relaxing change of pace. McCaslin leads the way, expressively interpreting Ess'
pensive melody-with a sweet helping of vibrato on the long tones. Ess solos delicately, with finesse. Harvie S and McCaslin open the up-tempo swinging "Ask The Guru." Harvie solos rhythmically on upright bass. Ess follows with a lucid, driving solo, pumping the group with each phrase. McCaslin wraps it up with a commanding excursion. McCaslin and Ess lock in on the melody of "Noh Country." The rhythm is loose-a medium groove tempo. Jackson extracts a palette of sounds from the drums, the rims, the toms and more. "Noh Country" feels like I'm being pulled into a vortex of sounds and influences ranging from world music and Ornette Coleman, to the sound tapestry I've heard on ECM recordings. It makes my ears perk up. Sandbox and Sanctum provides a glimpse into the musical mind of Gene Ess-and how he connects his writing and improvisation. The music is at once simple and complex, abstract and accessible. While these are not melodies that you might find yourself humming, they are intricately crafted. Ess arranges the songs to take full advantage of the stellar abilities of the sidemen. The ensembles are flawlessly executed, and the soloing is compelling.
With the release of Sandbox and Sanctum, Gene Ess has firmly cemented his place as a major jazz artist of the new millennium. His post-bop work is delivered with adventurous spirit and intense ethos, offering a powerful, unique voice to the idiom. A guitarist of virtuousic proportions, Ess plays fluid chromatic lines sometimes reminiscent of John Abercrombie. His performance is simply stated, yet reveals stunning technical fluency, the signature of all true greats. Theres a delicious sense of tension/release with his performance riding over the rhythm section, Ess is a master of the art of creating dynamic interplay. Supple, sanguine, and superb are the three words that kept popping into my head as I listened, this recording knocked my socks off and will be in my CD player on a regular basis for many years to come.
For this quartet outing, Ess has enlisted a first-class ensemble with Gene Jacksons drum set, bassist Harvie S and saxophonist Donny McCaslin. The four create a carefully constructed, masterful expression of the artists compositions, eloquently stated with a profoundly deep vision imbued with creativity and thoughtfulness.
Jacksons drums synthesize with Ess' guitar in the style of Coltrane and Elvin Jones, he kicks this musical venture into high gear with unbelievable speed and dexterity in his stick, brush and cymbal work. Bassist Harvie S. puts in an astounding performance with a facile, melodic performance, creating a symbiotic interplay with drummer Jackson for a swift and assured bottom end. Grammy nominee McCaslin is a fine player who offers beautiful rich tone and sinewy sax lines to the overall sound, weaving amongst the voices of the other players in a seemingly effortless performance.
From beginning to end this recording is filled with delightful surprises in context, substance, and passionate expressiveness. There isnt a single moment when one isnt completely enthralled with the musical virtuousity, superb composition, and stunning production values, the whole of which transcends the music and takes the listener to another graceful dimension.
Understated and exquisite, Ess has brought these four masters together to fuse their individual voices into one glorious masterpiece. Highly recommended.
Karl Stober, Ejazz News
Depict if you can, the flow of raging rapids as it journeys through a mountains demanding ravines. Its with that same natural poetic ecstasy that the hands of Gene Ess manipulate the frets of his instrument, an unnatural action for some. However, for Ess it is that specific gift that has the strings alive with vehemence. Esss new release Sandbox and Sanctum released on SIMP Records in 2005 showcases the acute talent of this man and his quartet, so far removed from the pack, equipped in sorts with a unique and diverse method of style. Sandbox and Sanctum is a capsule of original compositions put in motion to work in sync providing a philosophy set to music. In embracing this jewel box, allow yourself to flow with segues, tones, and arrangement variances, most amazing are the moments captured while you listen. This disk makes you feel many things all of which are personal. If youre not familiar with the Ess design, youre not alone. However, after experiencing Sunrise Falling (2003 AMP Records) and No One in Particular Rashied Ali Quartet (2001 Survival Records) it will help you understand the string work. Ess is one musician that invites innovation and exposes it to the world. Push play on Baptisma Pyros for it will demonstrate the precise string flow and movement of Ess style. Gene Jackson also keeps the piece together with the ease of his skin injections. Ess again comes out with a subtle dominance in Sun Matsuri but what I enjoyed in this cut was the sax appeal of Donny McCaslin, coming out with vibrant determination. However you slice this arrangement it is a special piece that states a strong message. Figure it out for yourself! So refreshing is this offering that I can just expand only on what I feel not what you should feel. Take the spin and it will have meaning for you
All About Jazz Los Angeles
Ess propels the band through eight original tunes, creating a potent mix of sophistication and enthusiasm. While Ess bases his skills in jazz, there are other influences he obliges on his playing. This liberal interpretation of jazz creates an open environment for his cohorts to explore, especially for saxophonist McCaslin.
All Music Guide
Guitarist Gene Ess' Sandbox and Sanctum features eight of his complex originals performed by a top-notch quartet. It is post-bop jazz influenced but not derivative of John Coltrane. Ess, who recalls John Abercrombie in spots, is a fine player
David B. Wilson,
Wilson and Alroy Record Reviews
his tunes are robust, and captivating ("Ryo," which alternates between slow lyrical lines and zippy riffs). Not to mention varied: the band ranges from uptempo improvisation over walking bass ("Free 2 Fast") to classical-style guitar ("Ballad For A Swordsman") to the measured, near-R&B groove of "Kerama Professional" without a false step.
H. Allen Williams, Jazzreview
Throughout Sandbox and Sanctum, Ess displays a unique approach to the guitar. Ess's use of thoughtful voicings and eloquently chromatic lines definitely grow out of the rich soil of the likes of John Coltrane and the post be-bop era. Ess is a highly recommended guitarist to keep an eye and ear on for the future of jazz guitar.
"Good set of instrumentals that are constantly enjoyable, entertaining and well-constructed. With a constant flow that just keeps moving and moving."
Greenland , AAJ New York
"The latest is leaner, cleaner, and full straightahead, underscoring the guitarists impeccable tone and taste. More importantly, it represents Ess, for the first time,
in complete artistic control of compositions, arrangements, recording, mixing/mastering, and productionwith admirable results."
Wayne Zade, All
While a listener might think of Pat Metheny or John Abercrombie or even Grant Green now and then, Ess here really sounds like no one else on guitar: he is his own man. In his solos, his front line playing with the very fine tenor and soprano saxophonist Donny McCaslin (next time: more soprano!), and his comping, Ess is a full-fledged master of taste and touch. His solos are model essays of eloquence and compression. His very special moments occur on acoustic guitar on Ballad for a Swordsman and a very electric rock-ish Sun Matsuri.
Smooth Jazz and More WSTM-TV
3 out of 4 stars
Gene Ess is an award winning guitarist from Japan. After discovering Jazz music in clubs around Okinawa, he moved to the states and studied the craft intently. His music style can be described as Avant Garde with influences from the likes of John Coltrane. Its a challenging style of Jazz that will satisfy purists and interest wannabes. Sandbox and Sanctum is his fourth release. The supporting quartet is outstanding. If you love music in the tradition of John Abercrombie and Pat Methenys work with Charlie Haden and Jim Hall, this is for you! Good effort!
Nick Carver, No Idle Frets Podcast, dedicated to podsafe jazz guitar music - Show #16
"Gene Ess is definitely one of the Rising Stars in the jazz guitar field."
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