The raison d'ĂȘtre of this blog is to review quality books, music, photography and other content that is seldom brought to our attention by the mainstream media.

The title EV+1 is photographic jargon for Exposure Value plus 1: increasing exposure by one stop from the metered value. Photographers use exposure compensation in order to obtain a correct exposure, when the light meter's averaged reading would be incorrect. Like a photographer allowing an extra stop of light to reach the film, I hope to shed a little light on a few under-appreciated gems.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Nico Soffiato Quartet: Just Add Water

Every year, a few albums stand out from the rest, getting replayed repeatedly, both on the stereo and in my head. Just Add Water is one of these – an album which could prompt a much longer discussion than is possible here.

Nico Soffiato studied philosophy in Padua, where he grew up; he then continued his studies at UC Berkley, before deciding to change his focus to music and studying at Boston's Berklee College of Music for two years. It's not surprising to learn that he's studied philosophy, because his music has a cerebral quality that demands repeated listening – and from which the rewards are always proportional to the depth of one's attention.

In the '90's, fusion super-group Lost Tribe  blended complex time signatures and counterpoint with jazz, rock and hip-hop to create an infectious and intellectually stimulating recipe; their albums were high water marks in the last couple of decades of my jazz listening. A similarly eclectic approach is taken by the Nico Soffiato Quartet in Just Add Water: like Lost Tribe, the compositions (drawn from every band member) blend diverse ingredients: often contrapuntal, frequently changing metre, tightly structured, yet often with free improvisation devoid of metre; sometimes incorporating a steady rock beat and at times, fascinating cross-rhythms. The result is a refreshing and adventurous mixture which makes sense of the album's name: all that remains is for the band to add the water – interpretation and improvisation – to complete the recipe. (Soffiato likened the album's name to instant noodles: the composition is the noodles and the improvisation, the water.)

The first tune, Alexander (penned by bassist Giacomo Merega) is typical of the complexities and rewards of this music. It opens with a simple, shimmering guitar motif from Soffiato. This is joined by the rhythm section: a rocking beat and a busy, but catchy bass line are overlaid with the theme on sax, in counterpoint to the guitar line. The performance doesn't follow a conservative pattern such as returning to the top and improvising over the changes; rather, the tightly structured first section is followed by a meandering interlude of free improvisation (without metre), before returning to the guitar and sax theme and then the coda. The many metre changes throughout the performance surprise and delight the listener. As is the case throughout the album, one feels compelled to re-listen in order to understand how the performance works – and repeated listening is generously rewarded: one is left marvelling at the mixture of freedom and structure, at the interweaving lines and the ability of the band to move seamlessly from one time signature to the next and make musical sense throughout.

Soffiato is not a guitarist given to show; rather, he is a player and composer to whom one returns repeatedly, to unravel the threads. He is reserved in his use of the guitar as a chordal instrument, often weaving single lines behind Videen's smooth-toned alto sax, rather than comping with chords – an approach which adds to the feeling of space which is felt throughout the album. His use of a solid body Telecaster guitar (to which effects are occasionally added), along Meregat's often rhythmically complex electric bass, adds to the contemporary sound of the band.

It's heartening to hear such a fresh and adventurous debut album as this: Just Add Water leaves the listener eager to hear what the quartet will come up with next – and optimistic about the future of jazz.

Nico Soffiato is interviewed by Jason Crane on his excellent podcast, The Jazz Session.

Nico Soffiato, guitar
Nick Videen, alto sax
Giacomo Meregat, electric bass
Zach Mangan, drums
nBn Records, 2011

Copyright © Richard Smallfield 2011

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