Nick Russo | Self Published (2006)
By John Kelman
In an ever-shrinking world, musical eclecticism is now becoming the norm. Still, artists need to be able to channel their varied musical sources into a focused voice. Ro is a broad-reaching affair that demonstrates guitarist Nick Russo’s not insignificant improvisational and compositional strengths, but also feels a bit too much like a grab bag. Within this mix of confident blowing, cross-cultural influences and complex composition, Russo feels something like a kid in a candy shop.
Still, that’s not to say that Ro doesn’t offer plenty of appeal. Despite working with two core quartets and a number of guests (including the perennially overlooked saxophonist Mark Turner), Ro doesn’t have the “session” feel that plagues similarly large-cast projects. And it’s to Russo’s credit that his approach to improvisation, featuring for the most part a warm, Jim Hall-like tone, is flexible enough to feel credible whatever the context. It’s no surprise that artists like Hall, trumpeter Eddie Henderson and pianist Dave Kikoski all speak highly of him.
The mainstream “Triggered” shifts tempos throughout, but swings in all of them. Russo deftly navigates Matt Clohesy and Ari Hoenig’s seamless moves on bass and drums, respectively, with a Pat Martino-like use of repetition for dramatic tension. “Moy Zaichick” is a more modernistic composition where bassist Nathan Peck and drummer Willard Dyson’s funky groove gives way to a flurried theme. Pianist Art Hirahara—the only constant on the disc other than Russo—solos over a lithe Latin groove before Turner enters with Russo on a theme that owes more than a little to alto saxophonist David Binney.
The darker title track continues in Binney territory. Guest vocalist Miles Griffith doubles Turner’s theme—a simple string of notes threading through more detailed changes. Griffith—who also appears on the tabla-driven but still jazz-centric “Mitzvah” and the raga-informed “Little Hands,” featuring Russo on tenor banjo—is a relentless vocal improviser with terrific range. His reckless abandon approach to scatting works better in some cases than others. On the title track it contrasts too sharply with the softer tones around it, but on the propulsive “Mitzvah” it’s more fitting and impressive.
“Mitzvah” also features, despite its brevity, one of Russo’s best solos of the set. It’s exceptionally well-constructed and filled with rhythmic twists and turns, unexpected leaps and effective chordal punctuations—and more than any other on the disc, it suggests a distinctive voice in the making.
The eleven-minute “Please Come Home” closes the album on a more open-ended note and demonstrates yet another side to Russo, this time on acoustic guitar, spotlighting his need to find a better way to integrate his multiple concerns. Still, what it lacks in focus, Ro makes up for in promise, and Nick Russo is clearly a guitarist worth watching.
Track listing: Triggered; Moy Zaichick; Ro; Dinda; Mitzvah; untitled; Little Hands; Mmmm; Please Come Home (for STG Alec Petkoff).
Personnel: Nick Russo: guitar, acoustic guitar, tenor banjo; Miles Griffin: (3,5,7); Mark Turner: tenor saxophone (2,3,5,9); Bryan Murray: tenor saxophone (9); Glassman: trumpet (6,8); Art Hirahara: piano, Fender Rhodes; Pandit Samir Chatterjee: tabla (5,9); Nathan Peck: bass (2,3,5,9); Matt Clohesy: bass (1,4,6,8); Willard Dyson: drums (2,3,5,9); Ari Hoenig: drums (1,4,6,8); David Pleasant: drums, percussion (7).