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Apotheosis, a vibrant batch of original tunes, is guitarist Gene Ess’ fourth album with his quintet Fractal Attraction. Sampling a variety of groove-based styles ranging from post-bop and straightahead to rock and classical fusion, the pieces display an unwavering balance between restraint and catharsis. The ensemble functions like a typical bop quintet with a timbral twist — the melodic role typically shouldered by trumpet or saxophone is instead taken by guitar and voice. Singing mostly on wordless syllables, Thana Alexa matches the bandleader’s horn-like approach to soloing but steals the show with the rhapsodic passion infusing her clever navigation of the chord changes. She guides the group to moments of bliss on the snappy, post-bop opening track “The Return” and “Sands of Time (Okinawa),” a sentimental waltz with energy skittering below the lyrical surface. Ess shares her ability to rattle off licks that are surprising but easy to digest. Pianist Sebastien Ammann, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Clarence Penn form a subtle rhythm section, sculpting the dynamic arc of each section in response to the soloist’s lucid phrasing.
“Tokyo Red” opens with a dissonant melody that jerks around above an uptempo funk vamp before soothing to compensate for the B section’s increase in harmonic motion. While most of the pieces stick closely to the standard head-solo-head format, “Fireflies of Hiroshima” conjures an immersive, brooding atmosphere by employing a more experimental compositional infrastructure. Alexa croons the melody of a harmonically lush progression that patiently escalates throughout the track’s through-composed first half. Then, instead of soloing over the same pattern, Ess weaves a solemn acoustic solo into the stagnant drone of circular piano figures, churning a brew of cymbals and overdubbed vocal harmonies.
Throughout these eight beautiful pieces, the ensemble’s considerate, reserved playing provides a sense of emotional directness that is refreshing in this age of rampant virtuosity.— Asher Wolf Featured photo by Simon C.F. Yu.