Like a lot of seasoned, contemporary jazz pianists, Clay Giberson creates music that just about always works, but always works its most magic when it takes chances and breaks free from tradition. It's not so much a problem in contemporary jazz as it is an ever-so-slightly unfulfilled promise: it's music that is fine, damn fine even, for what it is, but always hints at going somewhere a little more special.
With Upper Road, Giberson and an extensive crew run a tight-rope of taking the high road or the one most frequently traveled. Artists on the album include bassist Jeff Leonard, guitartist Dan Balmer, drummer Carlton Jackson, flutist Hans Teuber, and Gilberson on piano and rhodes, and there's a smoothness to their playing, an assuredness that accompanies solid jazz music. Even use of synthesizer by Forrest Gilberson (who also subs as organist), nicely supports the calm approach and even grants a certain lushness (especially on track number three, "Rivers to Cross").
But the album fares better, of course, when it bumps and grinds a little. This usually is to the credit of guitarist Balmer, who livens up quite a few tunes, notably "For the Time Coming," (which features nice vocals from Sanni Orasmaa). In an odd move, tracks eight and nine are parts one and two of "Change of Mind," but would probably be more memorable as one track: start on one plateau, move into the other, and connect the journey along the way. These guys are good, no doubt, and offer pleasant music that sometimes is much more than that. But with eleven tracks playing more or less upon familiar ideas, they'd clearly excel further if they remember to infuse the playfulness back into their playing.