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An Eight Out of Nine is Steven Lugerner’s most impressive album to date. The 27-year-old multi-reedist released this collection of fresh, impassioned originals on his own Slow and Steady label. In assembling the line-up for his new nine-piece SLUGish Ensemble, Lugerner combines his fellow rising stars of the Bay Area jazz scene with local legends including drummer Allison Miller and her go-to bassist Todd Sickafoose, who also produced the album.
All seven compositions organically blend rock, funk and hip hop, forgoing harmonic complexity in order to highlight subtleties of groove, timbre, phrasing and melody construction. Consequently, though there is plenty to chew on for jazz aficionados, An Eight Out of Nine is quite accessible to a younger generation of music lovers with a burgeoning interest in the idiom. The pieces are traditional in their large-scale structure (sequential solos flanked on either side by the theme), but are progressive in the creative and rigorous arrangements.
The title track opens with the bandleader crooning the colorful head as drum and bass mingle with Justin Rock’s delicate electric guitar. With a hip, eloquent solo, pianist Carmen Staaf brings the brooding atmosphere to a boiling point, cueing a triumphant woodwind part that gives body to the spacious texture. “Be Brave,” on the other hand, starts emphatically with counterpoint between an earthy blues vamp and a catchy, jagged horn lick reminiscent of the late Roy Hargrove.
Lugerner wrangles a fairly large group to achieve a rich, compact sound. The lucid simplicity throughout reflects a strong hip-hop influence, expressed by a tolerance for looping that aligns more to pop-music sensibilities than to the complexity and perpetual variation favored within contemporary jazz. In this respect, An Eight Out of Nine serves as Northern California’s less extravagant answer to Los Angeles’ thriving crossover soul-jazz scene (popularized largely by Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus). The record is original, earnest and immediate.— Asher Wolf