Erskine has worked with Gino Vannelli, his own uncle Peter Erskine in the New Trio, the Portland-based band MPEG and many more. Joining Erskine is long-time friend and collaborator Reinhardt Melz. Erskine and Melz are in several musical ventures together and they form the most formidable rhythm section is modern Jazz. I’m not kidding. In fact, Erskine credits Reinhardt with improving Damian’s bass playing. In the liner notes, Damian states that he is “pretty sure I’d be half the bass player I am today if I hadn’t met” Reinhardt.
On piano is George Colligan. Colligan is one of the most prolific and prodigious Jazz artists around. He has released scores of albums as a leader/pianist, has played drums on his wife Kerry Politzer’s album and has recently released an album as leader/drummer. He is a trumpet player, as well, and is now developing his bass skills. It is his sense of percussion that makes him the ideal fit for Erskine and Melz.
Tom Guarna on guitar is also a frequent band-mate with Erskine and Melz (and Colligan). Do a YouTube search with any combination of those four names and you will discover a treasure trove of live performances at Portland’s famed Jazz venue Jimmy Mak’s. The brilliant guitarist Byron Fry has just such a look and exclaimed, “These guys are gonna put us all on the street!”
Guarna is a brilliant guitarist himself and works magnificently with Colligan in holding the melodic front. His solo recordings are worthy of great notice and he is a seamless addition to this incredible lineup.
The inaugural piece is “To the Rest.” Erskine and Melz start straight in with a demanding rhythm that is fascinating. Colligan and Guarna show from the very beginning that they do not keep their best for their own recordings. The near-telepathy between Erskine and Melz is electrifying and Colligan and Guarna are a splendid pairing. Time changes, complex rhythms and ambient guitar with Colligan’s mastery create a work of sheer brilliance.
“Who by Now” is a work of melodic precision and passion. Both Colligan and Guarna are exquisitely lyrical and virtuosic. The rhythm section, however, keeps up the funk in one of the coolest grooves this side of the mothership.
“Begin Within” is sweetly melodic. Piano, guitar and even bass all get a turn on carrying the melody and Melz is fittingly subdued. Guarna’s solo is a thing of pure delight. Colligan plays it cool in support and the result is one of the truly lovely tracks on the album.
Melz sets a demanding rhythm from the opening of “Bestowal.” Joining Melz is Miguel Bernal on congas and chekeré. The chekeré is the 19-20 inch gourd that is covered with netted beads and is shaken, slapped or whatever is necessary to produce the desired effects. Together, Melz and Bernal set a strident and imaginative pace that Erksine handles perfectly. Guarna, then Colligan, springboard into sizzling solos from the foundation of this stupefying rhythm section.
Colligan’s piano approach moves from the melodic to the percussive and then in tight with Guarna. The interaction of piano and guitar is the double-helix of this mutated musical gene. It is an absolutely rich and rewarding track.
Bernal stays about for “Stumptown Stumble” with congas and batá. The batá is a double-headed drum that is almost hourglass shaped. It is especially used in Afro-Cuban and Nigerian religious ceremonies. “Stumptown” is one of the many nicknames of Portland, Oregon. Apparently, land clearing was expanding so quickly at one point, that Portland was known for all of the stumps left by the tree-cutting.
The Afro-Cuban rhythms of Melz and Bernal simply defy stillness. The lilting melodic introduction is an excellent metronome for Erskine’s bass. Every instrument becomes part of the percussion and one point or another in the piece. It is as if every player is thinking in terms of time over key.
“Altitude adjustment” is Melz’ showcase, playing at his most ferocious and intricate. Atop that, Colligan turns in some of his most exciting piano work. Guarna contributes magnificent guitar imagery. Erskine has composed a work of delicious variety. A Middle Eastern motif weaves in and out of the composition that is enhanced by the drive of Damian’s bass. My only wish is that this track lasted about 15 minutes longer.
“Song for Zoey” was co-written by Vardan Ovsepian with Damian. It is the most romantic piece on the album and is a total surrender to melody. Damian’s bass is sweet and even touching against the soulful piano of Colligan. The bass solo is almost a serenade on its own; it hums a lullaby. Reinhardt’s brushed are gentle to the point of soothing. This is a treble track.
“Within Sight” jump Starts with a great groove from Erskine and Melz that is undeniably intoxicating. Tom Guarna’s guitar is lush and warm while George Colligan is cool and wide-eyed.
It is Erskine and Melz, however, who play with understated eloquence and continue to pull the listener toward them. That is doubly true on “50 Out of 1” in which Reinhardt’s mastery of Afro-Cuban rhythms is on fantastic display. It is Erskine’s foray into Latin Jazz and it pays off huge dividends.
Colligan is simply fascinating, even captivating as Guarna carries the lead. Tom Guarna is far too underrated. He has been impressive time after time and is never anything less than impressive and spot-on.
It is impossible to get enough of this track. This piece displays the best at their best. Colligan is remarkable. Seriously, he plays like a piano deity. It must be because throughout the piece I kept saying, “Oh, my God!” Guarna is a Titan. Erskine and Melz are simply unbelievable. Erskine definitely saved the best for last. I confess. I put the track on repeat for many, many replays.
I have admired Damian Erskine’s work in every performance, every setting, I have ever heard. “Within Sight” is the culmination and display of all that he has developed as a composer and performer. He has an evolved vision of music and artistry and—with Colligan, Guarna and Melz—has made that vision plain to those with ears to hear.
Visit Damian’s website at http://damianerskine.com/.
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