French saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh has been fascinating me for a couple of years now. In November 2010, I reviewed I Will Follow You, a CD he did with guitarist (and frequent partner) Ben Monder and drummer Daniel Humair. That album blended abstraction, both melodic and noisy, and swing in ways I would eventually discover were trademarks of Sabbagh’s (and Monder’s). The two albums they’ve made together, as a quartet with bassist Joe Martin and drummer Ted Poor, have a kind of delicate approach to rhythm and group interaction that’s very reminiscent of Paul Motian‘s bands—no surprise, then, that both Sabbagh and Monder played with Motian for several years prior to the drummer’s death. (Read Sabbagh’s memories of one such gig.) What’s surprising to me is how well I like the sound they achieve, since Motian’s rhythmic concept is not one I typically embrace; I’m much more drawn to a forceful backbeat and groove. But Sabbagh’s deliberate, patient explications of a piece’s melody, his slow unwinding solos, work very well over a kind of abstract shuffle, and I’m not so sure they would work as well were he to be driven forward by a more aggressive player.
Anyway, when I heard Sabbagh’s new album was going to be called Plugged In (buy it from Amazon) and feature electric keyboards, I naturally assumed Monder would be present, too, as his best work (to my ear) is when he steps on the pedal and cranks it up in a manner reminiscent of Bill Frisell with Naked City or the Ginger Baker Trio at their farthest out. I guess I was expecting something in the vein of Tony Williams’ Lifetime, plus saxophone, or Larry Young‘s Lawrence of Newark. But there’s no guitar at all on Plugged In. The band is Sabbagh on saxophone, Jozef Dumoulin on keyboards, Patrice Blanchard on electric bass, and Rudy Royston on drums. And while the music is occasionally fierce and biting, much of it is smooth and fusiony, sometimes in disconcerting ways. For example, while the album opener, “Drive,” lets Dumoulin take a skronky solo over rumbling drums from Royston, the fourth track, “Jeli,” is overly busy and built around a melody that sounds like Weather Report-as-cruise ship band. Royston’s assaultive solo and Dumoulin’s zapping synths can’t save it from Blanchard’s too-slick-by-half burbling.
There’s a lot of music to take in on Plugged In—14 tracks in 65 minutes. The longest is the 7:10 “Aisha,” an atmospheric and somewhat vaporous ballad; the shortest is the 2:15 “Boulevard Carnot,” which is mostly a showcase for the keyboardist, who sounds like he’s imitating Keith Jarrett‘s work with Miles Davis in 1970, until Sabbagh briefly joins him in the piece’s last 30 seconds. If I’m making the album sound disappointing, it’s not; the saxophonist’s cardinal virtues, namely his insistence on patiently stating and restating a melody without throwing in a half-dozen tricks to impress his music-school buddies, are as present as ever. And Royston is a terrific drummer who improves every band he’s in. He supports Sabbagh in much the same way he bolsters JD Allen in that man’s trio. The unpredictability of Dumoulin’s keyboard sounds also adds more excitement than might be present with a lesser player around. Only the choice of electric rather than upright bass feels like a mistake, and even that works more often than it doesn’t. This is a weird, jazz-rock but not “fusion” record that’s likely to open itself up to the listener more and more each time it’s heard.
Listen to “Drive”:
Listen to “Ronny”: