If you want to make a splash with your debut jazz disc, you could hardly do better than to follow the lead of drummer Ray Levier. First, he's assembled a powerhouse band featuring some of the best jazzers out there who play their butts off. Second, his disc features some very strong compositions from his bandmates, who are all fine composers themselves, a couple attractive self-penned tunes, and one intriguing standard (Oscar Pettiford's "Blues in the Closet"). Third, the group achieves a genuinely cohesive sound, almost as if they've been playing together for a long time.
It doesn't matter that the leader takes somewhat of a backseat as a soloist. This disc isn't a cutting contest; it's much more about mood, melody, and group interaction. What Levier does do is always provide an attractive rhythmic foundation that enables his band to find the exact voice and vibe to bring out the heart of each tune, be it the Americana-tinged "Song for Nury," the tropical swing of "Manahatta," the snaky blues, "You Never Know," the boppish heart of "Bait Tone Blues," the Celtic brooding of "Ralph's Piano Waltz," or the somber meditation of "Wing and a Prayer."
It was a stroke of genius to lasso two of the finest jazz guitarists on the scene, John Abercrombie and Mike Stern. The latter, generally in a Sco mode, makes a very strong impression. I especially like his work on "Wing and a Prayer," where he sets aside pyrotechnics to create a mood of tenuous hope wrapped around the bright prospect of new beginnings. Abercrombie, one of the most tasteful and simpatico fretmen in jazz, is at the top of his game. Check out, for example, the slow burn he cooks up on "Ray's Way."
The leader has his own story full of pathos and victory. That he managed to release his own jazz record is itself a small miracle. The victim of severe burns, the result of a campfire accident, that covered most of his body including both hands, he was written off for dead in the hospital. When it became clear that he would survive, he still faced the prospect of a life of grave limitations. He was told he could never play the drums on account of the severity of the burn damage on his hands. But he persevered despite great hardship, driven by an intense desire to become a jazz drummer. It took long and excruciating hours of frustration, but eventually he managed to figure out a way to play the drums despite his extraordinary impediment.
This entirely engaging jazz disc is a testament to Ray Levier's incredible courage in the face of impossible adversity. But put all that aside: The music speaks for itself, with a power and authority seldom found in a debut recording.