Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Guitarist Mike Moreno finds balance between lyrical and probing music in "Lotus"

Mike Moreno gets everything right with "Lotus."
There's a need for soft-spoken jazz that doesn't drift into the pallid legacy of Windham Hill records. It should be music that connects with the sort of listener who wants to pay attention to what's playing, rather than do something else while being soothed.

This is what guitarist Mike Moreno has come up with on "Lotus" (World Culture Music), a set of nine works for quartet that manage to be ingratiating and stimulating at the same time. Moreno has confined himself to a few longtime associates and deliberately narrowed the expressive compass in his choice of Eric Harland, drums; Doug Weiss, bass, and Aaron Parks, piano and Rhodes synthesizer.

Parks will be familiar to Indianapolis jazz fans as the 2001 Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association. Among his accomplishments since then, he was a Terence Blanchard sideman for several years, contributing much to the trumpeter's band through his composing and keyboard skills.

Many bandleaders succeed by bringing diverse musicians into the fold and making their unity in performance sound like a minor miracle. While I don't doubt that Moreno's sidemen are capable of expressing themselves independently, what they do on "Lotus" is fully submit to the leader's vision. Support for Moreno the composer is total here. In part, that fusion is achieved because the ensemble texture typically presents piano and guitar in unison. Furthermore, the bass is quite self-effacing (maybe a little too much so), and the drummer actually plays the compositions, rather than just providing the pulse.

My only previous exposure to the guitarist, a 37-year-old from Houston, was his label debut "Between the Lines," a 2007 release. Also 100 percent originals, that  disc uses the same pianist and bassist, a couple of different drummers (mainly label founder Kendrick Scott), plus saxophonists John Ellis, with tenorman Marcus Strickland on two tracks.

 It's no knock on Ellis or Strickland to say that the fifth man clutters what Moreno is all about on "Between the Lines." That's not to say he should never record with more than three other musicians; rather, in "Lotus" he's found a perfect fit between his rangy compositional muse and a performing style that favors thoughtful extension of the melodies that come to him.

Parks shows off his well-rounded phrasing and crisp articulation in his solo on "The Hills of Kykuit" and a strong, shapely tone in the bass register on "Blind Imagination." On "Hypnotic," Harland demonstrates how a drummer can kick up a lot of energy behind a band that animates but never disturbs the inherent calmness going on out front. Such drumming helps the piece live up to its title, the way hypnotism releases psychic energy that supports the affected personality in making the hypnotist's power of suggestion issue in behavior that seems second nature.

I'm not sure why the publicity for "Lotus" feels the need to tout the CD as "Moreno's most honest music to date." Normally I like to think a musician's honesty in his music can be assumed. But I guess the PR kudos is just another way of saying that a perfect fit between what drives a composer-player to create and its outcome in a published ensemble recording is relatively rare. If other influences persist in the result, however, it's no sign of dishonesty. It's just that occasionally all that background is pared away, and something pure and self-contained emerges. That's what happens in "Lotus."

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