From fear of heights to stage fright, Warsaw-born guitarist and composer Rafal Sarnecki has been bedeviled for years by phobias. Thus, it’s not surprising that the music he creates with his septet is somewhat schizophrenic. The center of stylistic focus shifts dramatically throughout the 10-track set, landing, if ever so briefly, on the terra firma of such references as hard bop and free jazz. At times, Sarnecki sounds like a Polish Bill Frisell, opting for folk-tinged minimalism. Simply put, Climbing Trees is a session that defies easy categorization. The music’s capricious personality and spirit of adventure emerge as the program’s most identifiable touchstones.
Pianist Glenn Zaleski’s spare and evocative chords, delivered at a measured, solemn pace on “Solar Eclipse,” the opener, serve as a preview of arranging techniques the leader employs throughout the session. The rhythm section occupies its own universe, with Zaleski fashioning muscular, repeated phrases that provide a round-like foundation to many of the works. Sarnecki’s guitar is often paired in unison with the wordless vocals of Bogna Kicińska, a standout attraction, as are Lucas Pino’s molten solos on tenor sax and bass clarinet. “Dadaism,” the album’s lenghtiest and most free-spirited track, exemplifies Sarnecki’s ability to balance the tension between orchestral structure and untethered impulses.
The curiously titled “Write a Letter to Yourself” affords the rhythm section an opportunity to step out in standard piano-trio mode on the set’s most conventional performance. Drummer Colin Stranahan is a high-energy rhythm machine, his cymbals always churning, while bassist Rick Rosato’s svelte ostinato lines provide a metronomic underpinning to Zaleski’s driving and loose-jointed keyboard excursion. Sarnecki’s guitar solo is also grounded in the mainstream tradition, but as with the rest of the ensemble, his playing is always laden with a genre-bending edge.
Climbing Trees is a session as disarmingly delightful as it is probing and intellectually challenging.— Mark Holston
Feature photo by Mariana Meraz