Monday, December 19, 2005

Try! this CD

The newly released John Mayer Trio's Try! is a CD I did not anticipate. Upon brief listening, I should have.

John Mayer, previously known for writing lighter, adult-contemporary versions of Dave Matthews Band's frat-boy funk, has shifted gears with his new group. He has shed some of the spotlight to share it with two fine musicians, bassist Pino Paladino and drummer Steve Jordan. These two session musicians with jazz chops come with rock credibility. Paladino was The Who's replacement for John Entwhistle. Jordan, the Late Show Band's original drummer and 70s jazz-fusion notable, has played with legends such as Keith Richards and Neil Young. Those of you who aren't musician geeks might remember Jordan's stint as house band drummer for the Blues Brothers.

While the rhythm section brings credibility to the music, there's no mistaking this group is about John Mayer -- less as a songwriter and more as a player. What stands out to me is Mayer is indeed a fine guitarist who could have had a quiet but very successful session career. His chops are considerable, but he brings much more sensitivity and personality to otherwise standard blues stylings. He's not Jimi Hendrix or Buddy Guy and he's certainly not in the elevated air of Scofield, but he's not trying so hard to imitate them as he attempts to honor these types of players with his own voice.

The music itself is representative of a different era, the power trio. If comparisons to Cream or Jimi are obvious, the JMT players do not seem opposed. They revel in it. This is not your ordinary jam band. There are no signs of excess, no 15 minute journeys into self-absorbed anti-melodies. In another day, these would be under-five-minutes radio-friendly tunes with no small amount of airplay. Two covers, one of Jimi and one of Ray Charles, are personalized on an otherwise original lineup up songs. There are identifiable melodies and hooks -- elements typically missing from "jam band" albums.

There's a sense of recklessness about this live disc that is part of its appeal. The music is very tight, don't misunderstand, but the sound mixing is not going to make audiophiles very happy. The crowd does not respond at appropriate times -- and responds and inappropriate times. Falsetto background vocals at one point crack off-key through properly tuned instruments. Frankly, it's a real live album, and not the compilation of best performances one finds on more corporate releases. It's all the charm and intimacy of a club gig.

Try! pays homage to great power trios of the past, but it is more like a mass audience-friendly version of Jing Chi, the charmless blues trio from Robben Ford. But where Ford, Jimmy Haslip, and Vinnie Colaiuta indulge themsleves in exotic directions, JMT attempts to engage an audience not well versed in jazz theory and playing over the bar. Considering the impeccable choice of talented musicians who cater to simplified rock, JMT makes Try! accessible to the masses without dumbing down the music.

In another day, that was considered genius.

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