|Recorded January 2006.
Taking the title of Tom Guarna’s second Steeplechase album at face value, one might picture the guitarist possessing an innovative improvisatory approach, one that operates well outside the bounds of mainstream jazz. Actual exposure to his music reveals something else entirely and the experience served as an instructive reminder to me of the old reviewer adage: multiple listens make for a much more accurate appraisal. My first time through Out From the Underground, I was ready to dismiss Guarna as a garden variety John Abercrombie disciple, owner of a clean and mannered plectral style, a disposition for workman-like displays of dexterity, and an ear appreciative to the formalities of classic fusion. The friendly ghost of Grant Green also comes out in his occasional integration of ringing arpeggios. It wasn’t until my third trip through the disc in the comfort of my car on an afternoon commute that things started to click.
Guarna avoids standards in favor of a program completely given over to his own compositions. Another draw to the disc is Steeplechase first stringer George Colligan’s generous use of Fender Rhodes. The warmly resonant electric keys give the music a strong retro Seventies feel and make the slippery time signatures of the several of the pieces breathe with even more space. Colligan’s work on acoustic piano is just as effective, particularly when the band detours into dark modal structures of “Two if By Sea.” Neither bassist John Benitez or drummer E.J. Strickland are peripheral players and the pair gel in a tenacious, but flexible bond in augmenting the grooves on tracks like the curiously up-tempo “Old Lady.” Guarna’s confidence in their talents communicates through their prominent contributions. Strickland catches an extended break on the fast clip title track and Benetiz gets the solo sanction on “I Can Hear Your Eyes.” Segments of Guarna’s solo on that piece sound surprisingly in line with the more adventurous work of someone like Dom Minasi or Ben Monder. Sometimes, as on the ballads “Reunion” and “If We Meet Again”, the trio strays a bit to liberally into the saccharine side of their fusion interests, but even those choices maintain a stable continuity and poise.
I missed out on Guarna first Steeplechase disc, but upon learning of the presence of organist Gary Versace on that session and checking out a couple of choice samples on his My Space page I fully intend on chasing down a copy. In the meantime, I’ve returned to his work here repeatedly, that dictum about not judging a novel by the first few pages still very fresh in my mind.
~ Derek Taylor