Get Yer Groove on to Ryan Heinlein’s Project H

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There are some in Kansas City who lament the current lack of classic “Kansas City” jazz going on in the K.C. area.  They have nostalgia for the good old days when the likes of Moten, Basie and Bird dominated the scene.   I am glad the current K.C. scene is not dominated by people trying to rehash what has happened in the past, who would, in essence, make K.C. a living musical wax museum populated by capable musicians who would ultimately fail to live up to the high standards set 60 or 70 years ago.

Those who are fortunate to know what’s going on in K.C. right now would tell you that there is a thriving scene full of younger players and writers who work in every style imaginable and who are helping to broaden and diversify the definition of “Kansas City Jazz.”  Trombonist and composer Ryan Heinlein is one of these figures, and the latest CD from his band The Project H – entitled Become Light – is a highly entertaining, fun, and catchy record from the funky and fusion side of things going on in K.C.

What I like most about Heinlein’s compositions is that they are more than just a catchy head that’s followed by solos and a restatement of the head.  Statements are followed by counter-statement, themes are developed, and tempos, grooves and mood change.  Heinlein’s tunes have life – they grow and evolve, all while allowing ample space for the soloists to stretch out.  His writing balances several voices and parts and can be quite nuanced at times.

The disc’s middle three tracks are my favorite.  “Saturday’s Back!” is perhaps the album’s catchiest tune (it was lodged in my head for a solid three days before writing this review).  I dare you to keep yourself from geeking out to the horn parts at the top – it’s got kind of a slightly 80s, slightly cheesy (in a good way) thing going.  “Murphy’s Law” is a great example of the compositional approach outlined above and features some killer bone playing from Heinlein, who has a round, rich tone (his playing on the bittersweet “With a Heavy Heart, We Prevail” is also very nice).  “Murphy’s Law” begins with the group playing lengthy lines over a sixteenth note high hat pattern and segues somewhat unexpectedly into an uptempo swing feel before the solo section.  Closing the solos is a brief transition that introduces a lovely section in three that features plaintive writing for trumpet, bone and tenor.  The cut closes with a recapitulation of the top.  “The Fine Art of Neglect” finds the group in a more serious, reserved vein.  In a very natural and easy feeling 5/4, tenor saxophonist Brett Jackson plays the melody alone, it is then restated with Heinlein joining in, then again, this time with trumpeter Clint Ashlock adding a muted counter melody.   A short b section follows in which the meter shifts to 4, setting up the solo section.  The composition (the word “tune” isn’t right here) builds nicely and increases in interest.

Become Light is a very good album by one of Kansas City’s top groups that is helping to redefine what “Kansas City Jazz” means in the 21st Century.  If you get down to Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor, Jeff Coffin’s Mutet, Snarky Puppy, and jazz on the funkier side in general, then this disc if definitely for you.

And now, a few words on the band and some highlights:

Bassist Dominique Sanders is just bad.  Everything he plays is funky and tight.  There is no way the groove will ever get away from him as his time is impeccable; he owns the pocket.  His solo on “Saturday’s Back” is simultaneously meaty, but restrained, privileging ideas over flash.

Ashlock, who leads the New Jazz Order Big Band (if you’re in the KC area you can hear the group Tuesday nights at Harlings – make sure to visit its legendary mens room), is one of the scene’s premier trumpeters and composer/arrangers.  Ashlock, who is excellent throughout, shows off his more lyrical side on “Water Torture” and his laid back and groovy side – as well as his high note chops – on “Saturday’s Back!”

Jackson – who plays plays all of the saxophones in Ashlock’s outfit when needed – is heard on tenor on Becoming Light.  His solo on “The Fine Art of Neglect” is one of the album’s highlights.  It begins in a lyrical and laid back fashion, and like the composition itself it builds in intensity and complexity.

Drummer Matt Leifer seemingly plays with just about everybody in K.C., regardless of style (about a year ago I witnessed him playing with four very different groups on the same night).  Along with Sanders, Leifer is all business, keeping things locked in throughout.  His solo into to the disc’s first track, “Revisionist,” is very nice – impressive technically without being flashy.  The rim-shot focused groove he lays down on “The Vibe Out” is nasty.

Rounding out the group is Andrew Oullette on keys.   His shimmering and quiet solo intro on the title track is both quite nice.  Here he stretches out a bit on his solo, which starts off in mostly single note figures and slowly grows and climaxes with block chords juxtaposed with single note runs in each hand.

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