I loved George Cotsirilos's guitar the moment I heard it. His sound is shrewd and seasoned and he has a refined sense of history. There's ample swing, soul-jazz and a keen sense of fusion in his playing, and I can hear Grant Green's plucking, Pat Metheny's articulation, Joe Pass's chords and John Scofield's note-bending in his playing. Backing Cotsirilos on his superb newly released album, Refuge (OA2), are Keith Saunders (piano), Robb Fisher (bass) and Ron Marabuto (drums).
Born in 1951, Cotsirilos has an interesting biography. He was introduced to jazz when an uncle took him to see Louis Armstrong. Next came concerts by Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner. By the late 1960s, Cotsirilos was swept up by the blues-rock guitar movement coming to a boil in San Francisco. In 1969, Cotsirilos attended the University of California at Berkeley, majoring in sociology. He took his guitar and taught himself to play blues riffs. Two years into college, he put college on pause while he played with a blues band in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Back at Berkeley, Cotsirilos studied with jazz guitarist and guitar-book author Warren Nunes, who helped him develop his technical skills. Nunes played him records by Wes Montgomery, John Scofield, Pat Metheny and Joe Pass. There were also sessions listening to records by Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.
But a career in jazz seemed financially daunting. So Cotsirilos attended Golden Gate University law school and became an assistant public defender. Next, he founded a successful criminal defense practice in San Francisco and took a position at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. There, he taught criminal trial practice for 15 years. But he never gave up on music. Cotsirilos continued to practice and play.
His first recording session, as a sideman, was for The San Francisco Nighthawks Featuring Eddie Marshall in 1995. His first album as a leader was Silenciosa in 2003. Others followed: On the Rebop (2005), Past Present (2009), Variations (2013) and Mostly in Blue (2017), with the same group that appears on Refuge, recorded in Berkeley last September.
All of the album's 10 tracks are were composed by Cotsirilos and have a swaggering energy. To Cotsirilos's credit, he constantly shifts gears to keep things interesting and to engage and hold the listener. For example, Devolution is a rolicking soul-jazz piece while Refuge and Planet Roxoid are seductive fusion compositions. Igualmente is a swinging blues, The Three Doves is a mid-tempo ballad with a John Scofield feel, Slacker is straight-ahead jazz in the Wes Montgomer groove, Aftermath is a swinger with fat Joe Pass-like chords, A Faint Light is misty, Smoke Signal is a wispy polyrhymtic fusion piece and Let's Make a Break is a galloping bopper.
Refuge is George Cotsirilos in his prime and at the top of his game, both in terms of his writing and playing in a variety of hybrid styles. And his sidemen are perfectly in sync with his sensitivity and tender dynamism. As the music shows, this is a dream quartet.