Bus Biscuit Records
August 23, 2012
Buy at Amazon
After decades of writing music for other people’s projects, George Oldziey (of Wing Commander and Ultima fame, amongst others) released his debut solo album in August 2012. For fans of his video game scores, El Viento will be a surprise, as it highlights a genre that hasn’t featured in his soundtracks so far: Latin Jazz. However, Oldziey had already been performing for years with his jazz outfit GATO 6 in the Austin area. And no, the band name is not a Chrono Trigger reference — it actually stands for George Alan Thaddeus Oldziey. The album was released on Oldziey’s own Bus Biscuit Records label both physically and digitally.
As far removed as El Viento might be from Oldziey’s usually sci-fi and fantasy focused soundtrack work, it’s another strong entry in his discography and once more highlights the composer’s stylistic versatility. While it does bring together Latin and Jazz elements in several of its compositions, the album as a whole moves back and forth — with ease — between two stylistic directions: sunny, laid-back compositions carried by Latin rhythms, and smooth, urban jazz pieces with a shadowy aura.
El Viento begins with a number of buoyant Latin compositions, spearheaded by opener “Ojo Del GATO”. The track opens with congenial acoustic guitar rhythm work, before the reeds set in with a swinging, catchy melody figure that gets the music going. The rhythm section provides a feathery, bouncy bed for the delightful soli from the guitar, saxophone and trumpet that follow, before the piece returns to its opening melody and finishes with a lively duet between trumpet and saxophone. This track’s structure and characteristics serve as a blueprint for most tracks on El Viento, particularly those infused with various Latin flavours. Things usually kick off with some upbeat melody hooks and rhythms, before extended soli from the reeds and trumpet (and sometimes Oldziey on the piano) take over and carry the compositions through their considerable running times, before the music reverts to the cue’s opening material. With instrumental soli of such length, the music stands and falls with the musical and technical skills of the soloists, and Dennis Dotson (trumpet) and John Mills (reeds) do an exceptional job on their instruments. Their soli are played with verve and class, and bring together a feel for strong melodies with jazz-inherited virtuoso playing.
With the energetic solo instruments taking the spotlight on both the Latin- and the Jazz-tinged cues, the rhythm section on El Viento mainly stays in the background and provides emotional counterpoint to the soloists’ spark through more relaxed, but still spirited rhythms. This is not the kind of fiery Latin music that will get you on your feet dancing wildly. Only the blazing salsa interlude on “GATO Get It!” points in that direction, and the cue’s following return to its opening, relatively slow cha-cha rhythms unfortunately dissipates most of the drive the music had built up. Generally, the Latin tracks on El Viento opt for more gentle, yet playful grooves that underline the music’s carefree, genial nature. And while GATO 6’s rhythm section doesn’t steal the show from the solo instruments, immense credits must go its members, particularly Wayne Salzmann on drums. His tasteful, confident rhythm work is unshowy, but features plenty of jazzy syncopations and other intricacies that keep the rhythmic background of each track flexible and varied enough to sustain its running time. While the jazz rhythms on percussion and piano give the compositions some necessary depth, the percussion instruments imbue the Latin-flavoured tracks with the required energy and catchiness.
And above all, it’s the breadth of George Oldziey’s compositions that ensures El Viento remains fresh throughout the album’s running time. His Latin-inspired pieces range from the somersaulting liveliness of “Anda Logo”, whose samba rhythms brim with sun-kissed energy and fun, to “Monkey Dew” with its intoxicating infusion of smooth cool and elegance into its South American rhythms — it’s the album’s most convincing marriage of Latin and Jazz elements. “Peralta” finishes El Viento on an appropriately lighthearted note, even though it feels a bit flat and schematic compared to the album’s more fully-formed compositions. Still, there’s ultimately only one occasion where the album truly makes a misstep in its use of Latin sounds, and that’s on GATO 6’s cover version of R&B classic “Unchain My Heart”, made famous through its renditions by Ray Charles and Joe Cocker. Set against relaxed Latin rhythms that aren’t hugely imaginative, this version lacks the energy and grit of the tune’s more interpretations and doesn’t offer much to replace what’s been lost, apart from some breezy charm that GATO 6 brings to this piece. It’s also the only cue on the album where vocalist Suzie Stern’s performance is less then involving and feels unusually plain. It’s still a decent listen, but the track doesn’t stake a claim for why “Unchain My Heart” should have been covered in this particular musical style.
El Viento‘s second facet are its jazzier pieces, most of them slower than their Latin counterparts, but still put together according to the same structural formula. While these piece lack the infectious rhythms that make the Latin-influenced tracks on El Viento so accessible, Oldziey’s jazzier works offer more emotional shades — mostly blue and grey — and are ultimately more rewarding listens. One reason for their allure is Suzie Stern’s contribution to these tracks. She’s heard more frequently on these cues than on the album’s Latin half, and rarely fails to catch the spotlight. Her comparatively light voice might surprise some listeners who would expect a smokier female timbre for these seductive jazz pieces, but there’s no question that Stern’s performance brings out the sensuality of “El Viento”, backed by silky, syncopated rhythms and complemented by an spellbinding trumpet solo. This relative lightness also comes in handy on a piece like the samba-driven “Anda Logo”, where Stern’s scat vocals are quicksilvery enough to dance on top of the enthusiastic Latin rhythms.
Stern’s performance is one of immense nuance and depth, showcased most clearly on the album’s most arresting — and subdued — cues “I’ll Wait to See Spring” and “Ageless Grace”. The former adds a flute to its moribund, weary opening, before Stern shines with a carefully modulated performances that balances chill-induced restraint with pathos and the hope that the cold days will soon be over. The track’s sparse arrangement and its slowly shuffling rhythms convey wintry barrenness, while a warm flute solo in the cue’s mid-section is another reminder of happier times. “Ageless Grace” relies less on opposites than “I’ll Wait to See Spring” to shape its emotional impact, but if anything it’s even more involving than that earlier track, as it features Stern’s most nuanced, multi-layered performance on the album. Her yearning, smouldering tones are full of beautifully controlled pathos. On the other end of the spectrum lies “Do You Find It Funny?”, which elicits a sassy, determined performance from Stern that still hints at the vulnerability underneath the resolve. A particularly agile trumpet solo on “Do You Find It Funny?” gives Dotson a chance to show off his impressive playing chops, mirrored by the piano solo in the middle of “Cat’s Claw”, which finally sees Oldziey take centre stage in more extrovert fashion through a sparkling, tripping solo that is bookended by spiky, peaking horn fanfares.
Oldziey’s solo debut with GATO 6 is an engaging, colourful experience that moves back and forth between amicable, animated Latin sounds and smooth jazz pieces. Far from clashing with each other, these ingredients and the way Oldziey mixes them immensely benefit El Viento. An hour of exclusively either material would have dragged the album down after a while, but shifting gears between the two styles makes the album a sufficiently rich and varied work that rewards repeat listens, ranging from the forlorn mood of “I’ll Wait to See Spring” to the bounciness of “Anda Logo”. GATO 6’s soloists show both their technical skills and their musicality through exuberant solo after solo, full of life and emotions. Meanwhile, the band’s rhythm section does a sterling job at keeping the pieces going at a steady, yet rarely less then intriguing clip. “Peralta” falls somewhat behind the generally strong level of songwriting evident on the album and the relaxed Latin-tinged cover version of “Unchain My Heart” fails to give a convincing new spin on the classic tune. Yet overall, El Viento is an easy recommendation of lovers of both Latin and Jazz sounds. Here’s to hoping there’s more music to come soon from this source.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.