Gene Ess is a phenomenal songwriter. He’s got a free-jazz style while keeping each composition cool and tight. By filling out his quartet with musicians that compliment each other, Ess surpasses not only modern-day songwriters but also performers, making Sandbox & Sanctum a free jazz masterpiece.
A minor complaint, and the only one at that, of Sandbox & Sanctum is the first track titled “Free 2 Fast”. The location is poor, kicking off the album with a song that takes forever and then some to get started. Though brilliant in a free-jazz sense, it fails too hook the listener until nearly three minutes into the song. Once the first three are gone, it tops other songs on the album through the catchy riffs of Ess on guitar and the cool notes of Donny McCaslin on tenor saxophone to become one of the true high points on the album.
A notable mention must go to Donny McCaslin on tenor and soprano saxophone. His playing dominates each tune while Ess, S, and Jackson keep rhythm. Then, in most tunes, McCaslin drops out to let Ess take lead for a laid-back solo. While this progression is fairly predictable throughout the album–McCaslin taking lead, doing a solo, Ess doing a solo, back to McCaslin for lead to finish out the tune–it doesn’t take away from the power and creativity behind each tune. Another prominent mention must go to Gene Jackson on drums. I hear too few drummers on disc these days taking over for a solo, but Jackson does a fair share as he pulls out of his hi-hat, snare and fills routine for a quick frantic feature in tunes like “Ryo” and “Ask the Guru.” His fills alone are enough to warrant a comment, adding to the complexity of each tune and creating an interesting sound not apparent enough in today’s jazz.
“Baptisma Pyros” contains one of the more memorable hooks though it nearly matches the first track in length, passing 10 minutes without a sweat and dominating other tracks as Jackson flips out on drums while McCaslin launches into a rapid solo. “Ballad for a Swordsman” is a morosely slow tune, taking soft and melancholic tones and allowing Ess and McCaslin to shine with a pristine quality above and beyond the typical ballad. “Noh Country” pulls out another memorable hook and allows S to join Ess in carrying the introduction of this melody on bass while “Sun Matsuri” has one of the more abstract and obscure melodies I’ve heard. “Kerama Processional” wraps up the album with a catchy riff by Ess that could easily find a home in blues or soft rock. Ess’ melodic picking is an absolute delight, creating a near mystical sound.
This review was originally posted June 12, 2006 on the old version of FensePost.
SIMP Records [CD, 2006]
1. Free 2 Fast
3. Baptisma Pyros
4. Ballad For A Swordsman
5. Ask The Guru
6. Noh Country
7. Sun Matsuri
8. Kerama Processional