The smorgasbord of styles under the umbrella of jazz these days -- from smooth to rough, swing to funk -- means that CD reviews must go beyond comments on purely musical qualities to consider how listeners might use the music, be it for dancing, meditation, background or stimulation.
"Cycling," the first CD by the Portland contemporary jazz group Upper Left Trio, could fill several of those functions.
All the compositions are by group members Clay Giberson (piano), Jeff Leonard (bass) and Charlie Doggett (drums), and like many composer-driven collections, this CD showcases the range of their vision.
Fortunately, these guys do it all with excellence, an ear for beautiful melodies and a cohesive ensemble sound. It's easy to hear that Giberson is classically trained and that Leonard's career in the studio and on the bandstand included years with the Tom Grant Band. Doggett's stick work is tuneful and subtly expressive.
Their 10 instrumental tunes range from straight-ahead (Giberson's "Fine Line") to atmospheric meditations (Doggett's "Simplicate") and pretty ballads (Leonard's "There's a Spoon in the Sky"). Eminently listenable throughout, the musicianship is excellent and the balance deft. You'll never grind your teeth to these songs, though they're not smooth jazz. The writing is complex, yet the improvising remains calm and assured.
Maybe that's why the music doesn't jump out and grab you. Instead, it insinuates itself slowly over repeated listenings, expanding its appeal. Strong but not overtly muscular, full of subdued colors and motion, "Cycling" promotes the beautiful side of contemporary jazz with quiet insistence. (A-)