Seattle-based guitarist Jaiman Crunk hasn't taken half measures on Encounters, his debut as leader. In addition to marshalling over 20 top jazz musicians?cherry picked for specific roles?Crunk employs fourteen brass, woodwind and string musicians from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra on half the compositions. These four numbers in particular underline Crunk's notable compositional and arranging skills and he succeeds, as few do, in marrying the classical and jazz idioms. Crunk's guitar playing is an added bonus, but it's the strength in the writing and the diverse yet cohesive contours of the music that really capture the ear.
Bass is central to six tracks?the other two are bass-less duets?and five separate, distinctive bassists are an indication of Crunk's method of writing for specific individuals. Veteran Ron Carter illuminates "Spuren" with his irresistible propulsion, while around him the sections of the 10-piece orchestra?conducted by David Sabee?create rich interlocking waves. Tenor saxophonists Richard Cole and Jon Goforth and alto saxophonist Mark Taylor add flesh to the ensemble voice. The orchestra withdraws after four minutes, leaving pianist Bill Anschell, Carter and drummer Byron Vannoy in a more intimate setting. Though Anschell's playing is compelling, it's impossible to escape the allure of Carter's supportive yet probing presence.
The orchestral pieces are satisfyingly diverse; The vocal number "Let Me Slip Into Your Dreams Tonight" is arranged by Take 6 and displays a soulfulness akin to Stevie Wonder. Brian Bromberg's slap bass accompanies Crunk as he carves another solo of fluid invention, though the song's ending, by contrast, is abrupt to say the least. "Beneath a Leaf" begins with Crunk briefly on erhu (2-string Chinese fiddle) before the orchestra plus saxophonists enter by the main door in a bold arrangement evocative of Frank Zappa. When trumpeter Wallace Roney and electric guitarist Crunk solo, the orchestra recedes to the shadows, leaving bassist John Patitucci to gently stir the pot. There's chamber intimacy to "Her Kiss," with cello, viola and violin underpinning tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake's soulful playing on this tender and fleeting miniature.
The quintet and sextet numbers are equally appealing. Harmonium introduces the elegant, tightly spun "We've Come This Far." Crunk's tasteful solo is spurred on by bassist Buster Williams and drummer T3 McChristy, while tenor veteran Ernie Watts leaves his inimitable stamp with a typically strong, lyrical solo. Andy Narell's steel drums and Tommy Nitro's sympathetic synthesizers color "Just Questions," with bassist Tony Grey threading his melodic narrative through this slower, spacious number. The bubbling flow of Crunk's extended solo is delightfully paced and provides a highlight of the recording.
Bassist Chris Scyner's fast walking bass drives the straight ahead number "She Stepped Away," which features fine interventions from in-form trumpeter Randy Brecker and Crunk. The ballad "What You Know"?an intimate dialogue between Crunk and the ever expressive Anschell?is an arresting piece?lyrical yet restless.
Imagination is matched by ambition on these eight striking compositions, where contrasts in moods and textures are as satisfying as the strong individual imprints. Crunk is a compelling narrator and this recording is a very impressive opening statement.