About a year ago saxophonist Greg Ward was leading a quartet that was preparing to do a recording session for a jazz radio station when the pianist was unable to make it. The remaining three decided to go on preparing for and performing the session as a trio. The experience was stimulating to the remaining three, who found communion and freedom from performing without that chordal safety net. And Greg Ward's Phonic Juggernaut was born.
Greg Ward works in NYC these days but coming up in Chicago, embracing change and challenge comes naturally to him. His first album South Side Story was anything but a meek debut, a sweeping, stimulating jazz fusion statement, where sweating the details in composition, arrangement and performance resulted in an uncommonly good product of the style. It was, simply put, the best fusion record anyone put out last year.
But enough about that. Ward hadn't spent much time looking back at past achievements when there's so many other avenues to explore. When one opened up with the unplanned omission of a piano, he jumped in and his next record Greg Ward's Phonic Juggernaut became the result of this new direction. Along with Ward, the Phonic Juggernaut includes Joe Sanders on bass and Damion Reid on drums.
Ward wrote all the tunes except for the last track (we'll get to that one in a minute), and the striking thing about coming into this record with the memory of the last one is that even with an entirely different configuration, sound and approach, his songcrafting style remains recognizable. He's got a great knack for melody that unfolds with twists but are laden with little themes or repeating figures that serve as reference points for listeners to hold on to. Thus making his songs both complex and inviting at the same time.
So how does it sound in a sax/bass/drums getup? It's almost as if they played with a pianist but then the keyboard track was pulled out of these songs, laying bare the inner workings. It's those exposed inner workings that makes Juggernaut compelling. Ward's alto sax is, of course, the other constant. He plays with a great deal of confident, doesn't waste notes and knows when to take leaps and when not to.
Above Ground" first blew me back on the first listen not so much because of Ward's sax, but Reid's brutally powerful performance on his kit. His drums appears miked up close, so you can't miss him the entire album, but on closer listen, there's more than just muscle going on there. He is very much in tune with what Ward is playing, at times sparring with him and on a few occasions perfectly matched hitting the beat with the leader's notes in an incredible display of telepathy. Sanders alternates between swinging and rocking, and he in turn seems to react to what Reid is doing. Ward, in turn, creates melodies around Sanders' harmony. It's a circle of confluence that happens more often than we might think it does, but rarely is that interdependence is so explicit in how well it works.
Phonic Juggernaut" is structured about the same way, but Sanders is the guy more out front this time, and his acoustic bass lines are almost rock fusion-ish, as Reid reacts effectively to what the bassist is doing. Reid's elliptical rhythmic pattern provides the basis for Leanin' In" and on This Ain't Book 3," Ward and Sanders handle basic timekeeping chores while holding down the melody, allowing Reid to play lead" for much of the song. Velvet Lounge Shut-In" is a reference to those years when Ward was curating the Wednesday night jam session at Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge club in Chicago. It's a tribute to the late Anderson, but not necessarily a mournful one. The song is reflective and moody, built on nice little ostinatos plucked by Sanders.
In one of the many turns of his career, Ward had worked with the idiosyncratic violinist and singer-songwriter Andrew Bird on a recording project and opened for the fellow Chicagoan a few times. His familiarity with Bird led him to one of Bird's songs, Sectionate City," which Ward found too attractive not to cover. Coming in at the end of the record, it's a departure from all the tracks before it, not because of Bird's more folk and classically inclined leanings, but how the recording was put together. Ward asked the engineer Manny Sanchez to take their acoustic recording of the song and run it through some computer generated effects. The main chord sequence sounds as if performed by a string section and the drums programmed. But the song drifts in a out of the electronica treatment, at times sounding almost completely acoustic but never moving between the two extremes in a jarring way.
Greg Ward's Phonic Juggernaut isn't the follow-up record to South Side Story, but the debut record of another side of Greg Ward. And like his first debut record, Ward takes chances and comes out a winner.