Dec 30, 2011

English Guitarist Lee Jones Brings a Composer's Flair to "Songs From the 13th Hour"

Lee Jones is a young English guitarist who made waves in his homeland a few years ago with "Swish," his debut as a leader. With the release of his sophomore effort, "Songs From the 13th Hour," he's looking to make his mark in this country. On the strength of this album, I predict he will.

Jones is an examplar of so-called Nu Jazz, which emerged in the 1990s as a funkier, more accessible cousin to the post-bop stuff most of us jazz critics write about. I should say up front that Nu isn't my favorite vein of the music. While it bears little resemblance to the smooth swill churned out by the likes of the talented but tragically misguided Kenny G, as a genre it's still a little too polished for my tastes.

Having said that, Jones made me a believer with this album, and that's due to his mastery of the instrument and his flair for composition (all but one of the songs are originals.) Take the titletrack, a medium-tempo number that features veteran tenor saxman Jean Toussaint. Jones holds his own as he trades solos with the more experienced Toussaint, but more to the point the tune itself is a real gem, featuring a pensive, repeating riff that creates an undercurrent of tension throughout.

What's slightly odd about this album is the way it veers from tightly produced, commercial-sounding tracks to ones that are rich with quirkiness and lyricism. Take "In Another Time," in which Jones teams up with Fairport Convention violonist Ric Sanders on what amounts to a folksy ballad of sorts. The tone here is melancholic and muted, and Jones' fretwork is tastefully restrained rather than show-stopping. But the combined effect is intriguingly original. Jones has the composer/arranger's gift for seeing the big picture, musically; he looks beyond his own playing and marshals his musicians to create a sustained mood and ambience, one that lingers long after the tune has ended. Jones is also, it seems to me, a very visual composer, and if he ever gives up jazz I think he could forge a career writing soundtracks. One way or another, he's a talent worth watching.

 -Tony Rogers

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