Back in 2010 Jon Wirtz impressed me and many others with his debut recording ‘Sea Level, featuring mature solo piano work that evoked comparisons to reknowned pianists such as Keith Jarrett, Vijay Iyer and Matthew Shipp. Now he has returned with his ‘Nuskool’ trio on an album of strong and diverse compositions called ‘Tourist’. The album had a ‘soft launch’ back in April but I have been enjoying it on my iPod for even longer. Let’s take a look!
Musical Genre: Jazz
Where to buy:
Artist: Jon Wirtz
Tourist is the first group recording as a leader, featuring Wirtz on piano, John Grigsby on bass and Alejandro Castano on drums. They are also joined by a host of others including: Dan Schmidt on guitar for three tracks; John Macy on pedal steel on ‘Country’; Heather Larrabee, Jess DeNicola and Sarah Morris on vocals (Morris on ‘Slumber’ and ‘Gratitude’, the others on ‘Gratitude’); and Stephen Malloy Brackett who wrote and performed the spoken word lyrics on ‘Gratitude’.
The album of original compositions contains a couple of songs already getting some significant play: “Country” was selected by Chuck Leavell among a nationwide pool to be included on compilation album for Sing 4 The Trees charity, and “In The Body” was used as the soundtrack for independent film In The Body, which won award in 48 Hour Film Festival for Best Use of Dialogue (no dialogue was used, only the song).
One of the main recollections of listening to Jon Wirtz’s ‘Sea Level’ was just how BEAUTIFUL all of the songs were. Not beautiful in a shallow or superficial way, but in a descriptive sense that sets a tone and mood and scenario and takes you on a journey. Of all my expectations for ‘Tourist’, that was my biggest hope – that Wirtz would share some more beautiful compositions with us in a group setting.
And I was thrilled to find that he did just that – Tourist is a diverse set of songs, but all of them are gorgeous and worth repeated listens.
Starting out with the introspective ‘Slumber’, Wirtz continues the beautiful piano-centric themes from ‘Sea Level’, but with a wordless vocal providing the haunting melody. When we first listened my younger son thought the theme sounded like something from a movie – something that continued throughout. Wirtz writes very cinematic themes with sweeping harmonies and dramatic statements that at once feel familiar and inviting.
In my preview I had linked to a performance of ‘Politico’, and that remains my favorite song from the album for reasons I will discuss later. ‘Gratitude’ is a song that I have mixed feelings about – on the one hand it has a ‘spiritual revival’ feel to it that is engaging and makes you sway to the beat, but on the other I have to say I’m not a huge fan of the spoken word/rap style used for the vocal. That said, by the time it gets to stating the title, the intensity has built to the point where I no longer cared!
‘Camouflage For A Sunny Day’ is a gorgeous simple melody and is closer to the traditional ‘jazz tune’ than just about anything else on the album. It is also the most traditional piano trio song on the album – yet at the same time the groove isn’t a straight swing feel and therefore you never feel like the song is ‘traditional’. ‘Despite Appearances (All Is Well)’ returns to the more complexly through-composed feel that is pervasive on the album, with Schmidt again channeling Bill Frisell and providing background color against the building themes from Wirtz and the rhythm section.
‘Country’ is a sort of jazz-country fusion with guitar and pedal steel helping to complete the atmosphere. As the song begins it actually has more of a Vince Guaraldi feeling, but the composition has a solid folk and country structure with a shuffle beat and a sense of building excitement throughout, emphasized further by the swirling organ that brings the spiritual feel to the ending of the song.
The title track ‘Tourist’ immediately brought to mind the Pat Metheny song ‘Travels’ – not because it is a clone, but because of the reflective, almost melancholy feel with acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums, with guitar and piano alternating at the lead. It is a beautiful song that will put you inside your own mind thinking about places and things and people. Which is exactly what I think Wirtz was doing as he wrote the song.
‘Watching The World Wake Up’ is another song that has such a well written harmony and melodic line that it feels immediately familiar without being derivative. I like to dump a bunch of music together on a ‘current listening’ playlist on my iPod, and then shuffle it. There are new albums, classics, stuff I’ve been meaning to get back to and so on – and I constantly found myself checking out the Wirtz songs and being surprised, because I thought they were classics I already had listened to for years.
‘In The Body’ is the only solo piano piece on the recording, and it again reminded me of why I loved ‘Sea Level’ so much. Brilliant composition, gorgeous melody, and a feeling that is quiet and introspective, generally hopeful and always thoughtful. There are ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ sections, but it never veers outside of what my family would enjoy. ‘Awakening’ was another song my younger son remarked on, noting that it reminded him of a composition they played in orchestra – again, not derivative — but the structure reminded him of a familiar song, and he found the trumpet melody reminiscent of the way a lead line played against the orchestra piece he had played.
‘Quick Hit’ Song: “Politico” – I love how the song starts with a quiet but intense drum pattern that seems to echo from the past decades of rock and jazz, evoking in my mind a song that I was never able to place. The main theme is played with guitarist Dan Schmidt at the fore, in a high-spirited composition that on the one hand recalls Metheny, Carlton, Martino, and other greats of the jazz-rock guitar and at the same time is a thoroughly composed song. After a great rocking intro the song transitions by way of a syncopated theme interplay between the rhythm section into a slower section. At first it seems like the song is ending with some noisy guitar fragments, but then it feels like Wirtz is playing only for himself, turning the former theme inside out and taking off in a new direction, with Schmidt now bringing to mind Bill Frisell as he provides color behind Wirtz. The song slowly builds back up to a crescendo before settling back into the introspective feel Wirtz created mid-song. It is gorgeous and feels like multiple songs in one.
Would I recommend?: Absolutely! And that is because of something I continued to find brilliant in how Wirtz constructed this entire album – he made it all familiar yet fresh, borrowed without betraying his personal sense of style, and the results are stunning. It is an album that I can put on for my whole family but will also gladly listen to by myself in the car (that intersection is actually very small), and one of the best releases of the year.
Suggested audience: Anyone who considers themselves a fan of any type of jazz will appreciate this, and those looking to try out a new jazz record other than ‘Kind of Blue’ or ‘Take Five’ will also find much to like.
Source: Jon Wirtz provided me an ‘early access’ download … I have since bought the album on iTunes!
Here is the Jon Wirtz with NuSkool performing “Camouflage For A Sunny Day” from the CD release party: