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Greg Ward's Fitted Shards - South Side Story (2010)

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By Pico

Unless they have already been a key player in an established band, debut album of jazz solo artists tend to be uninspired affairs. Not yet finding their own identity, these neophytes often fall back on mimicking their major influences, making very competent but unexceptional records. Even most of the best musicians start off slow; they will often show the potential but not realize it until later on. That's not alto saxophonist Greg Ward, however. On Tuesday, this Chicago native releases his first at-bat South Side Story, and he has already knocked it out of Wrigley Field.

Behind every overnight success story—-and from an artistic point of view, I think it's fair to already call this record a success—-there is a lifetime of hard work, and Ward's story is one of pointed dedication an diversity. He was a Downbeat Magazine High School Jazz Soloist award winner as a teenager. He picked up scholarships from the Vail Jazz Workshop in Colorado, and at around the age of twenty, Fred Anderson selected him to curate the Wednesday night jam sessions at Anderson's famed Velvet Lounge in Chicago. Ward had gone on to study orchestration and composition with some of the world's best teachers and arranged and conducted an orchestra for Lupe Fiasco. He's worked with a diverse set of artists such as Al Jarreau, Rufus Reid, Hamid Drake, and the electronica artist Prefuse 73. Some of the bands he is a member of include Mike Reed's People, Place and Things, The Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, the experimental soul ensemble We Tree, and the Occidental Brother Dance Band. Oh yes, and the Exploding Star Orchestra, too. And we've barely scratched the surface of what this man has already done musically.

Ward has absorbed all this and views each of these learnings as “shards," which he “believes is a term that describes what all music is: many ideas, sounds and experiences all fitted together to create something unique and beautiful." Thus, when the time finally came for Ward to make a record of his own, he knew what he wanted to do and wasn't going to be timid about it. “So, for now, I'm not holding back anymore," he asserts in his liner notes. “I've put everything in my career and my life and entered an all-or-nothing world. If I don't live in this, my ideas won't be clear and the music sounds hesitant and that's the opposite of what I want. This is where these shards take their place."

When Ward formed his Fitted Shards band, he went with his colleagues from the Chicago jazz fusion collective blink. (lower case, ending with a period). blink.'s leader and composer Jeff Greene serves as upright and electric bassist, while the drummer Quin Kirchner was brought in as well. The band is completed with Rob Clearfield on keyboards.

Greg Ward plays an alto saxophone like a tenor guy: muscular, assertive and full-bodied. He doesn't ruminate over the right notes to play; he's figured that out through what has clearly been years of wood shedding and study. That's not to say he can't get soulful or lyrical, but it's purposeful, to the point and never overly honeyed.

Through nine self-composed songs, Ward displays not only a mastery of the saxophone, but a distillation of musical experiences...the shards. “Segue" serves as an intro that is multi-sectional and multi-faceted itself, swerving from classical, to prog rock to soul-jazz in the span of less than three minutes. “All In" announces itself bombastically, symbolic of Ward's leap into his vision for music. Between the chords struck as exclamation points, the song smolders around a two-note bass vamp that changes keys as Ward negotiates through it with style and passion, but also with knowing how to reach the top with going over it. Latin percussion from Kirchner complements his drums, and Clearfield's piano and synths play an equal supporting role in blurring lines between jazz and rock.

The short “Castle Of Ice" returns to classical shapes, but more explicitly. Clearfield performs this piece mostly on his own, but Ward harmonizes on the melody for the last minute of it. “Step Forward" is another roller coaster ride in mannerisms: shifting between soft hues and roaring hard rock balderdash with a pretty impressive straight bop solo tossed right into the middle of it, Ward never keeps his eye off the basic melody. Ward and Kirchner sync up for some deliciously jagged lines over Greene's spidery acoustic bass and then the leader jousts with Clearfield's piano on the brief avant-garde cut “Instructions."

The sprawling “South Side Story" starts out with Ward and Greene noodling over a two chord progression that becomes more and more defined and as the rest of the band enters, the song gains more spiritual steam in a Love Supreme kind of way. But that's just the first part of what is really a suite. Clearfield alone plays some gorgeous, classically inspired piece for the next section, and once again the ensemble gradually joins in, culminating in Ward's thoughtful solo. Appropriately, that consuming track is followed by the down tempo “Like Mozart." On the other hand, “University of Opportunity" is a tale of two tempos, both of which are brisk and with jazz harmonics played in a funk/rock fusion way.

“Fitted Shards," the last cut, is where Ward throws everything within arms length of him into the pot. It's another, multi-sectioned piece, running over twelve minutes long. However, Ward invests trust in his band to improvise and express the music in their own way. The result is a piece that moves through a variety of moods and intonations, but retain a single character.

Coherent but sweeping in scope, South Side Story establishes Greg Ward not as an emerging artist, but rather, an established force in the realm of performer, composer, band leader and now, solo recording artist. The jazz world may not see a better debut record than this one in 2010.

South Side Story is made available from 19/8 Records. Visit Greg Ward's website here.

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This story appears courtesy of Something Else!.
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