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Jesse Bartlett-Webber Quintet by Jesse Alejandro February 9th, 2008 Delicious

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Ear To The Grindstone

Brooklyn, NY

I will slaughter a lamb at your temple, burn an offering at your table, drink a toast to your mitzvah!

Ear to the Grindstone is the perfect name for the album it titles. Grindstone is a well-wrought piece of compositional craftsmanship. With this album, Jesse Bartlett-Webber (drummer/ bandleader/composer) and his Original Quintet and Friends have created music both beautiful and gripping, no small feat for any band, let alone a group of college students.

Like any good jazz instrumental album heavily utilizing improvisation, Grindstone requires listeners to actively engage the music and stay attentive to the melodic amblings and convulsions of the pre-composed head melody and the improvisational connective tissue scattered throughout. One hopes, with any good jazz album, that the compositions will offer a richness in melodies and intricate harmonies absent in popular musics.

With Grindstone, such attentive listening pays off; Jesse Bartlett-Webber's compositions are alternately sharp as a sword, swift as its swing, and soft as the silk it slices. The opening track, "The Tides of War," begins with an Arabian horn line that, with the help of a guitar harmonization, invokes the sweep of "Lawrence of Arabia." As the song sets out away from the head, textual changes via percussive accentuation, guitar effects pedals, white noise saturation, and eventual tempo retardation take the nine-minute track on a trek so expansive that one can almost crunch sand in his teeth and smell a scent of camel sweat. The next song, "Observing The Mike-Zehnder Interformeter," with its lock step, off-rhythm march of the rhythm section playing against infernal piano accentuation, conjures the sound of John Henry's heavy hammer battling a satanic machine.

The rest of the compositions on the album are equally as transportive. Whether it be the lazy, Sunday-morning waltz of "Daisy Chain" or the pretzel munching, barfly lament of "Maybe It's Time We Said Goodbye," Grindstone consistently creates new melodic worlds that are a joy to traverse. The quality of the compositions is especially sweet considering they are the works of a drummer. Unlike many drummer-led bands playing drummer compositions, Grindstone is not just a platform for Bartlett-Webber to display his talents behind a kit; it is the work of a serious (and talented) young composer.

That being said, the execution of these songs is at times lacking. The improvisational sections occasionally find the trumpet and guitar wandering aimlessly above the changes beneath them. And the occasional mistake during an iteration of a head bruises a song's performance (these mistakes are apparent because of the fantastic quality of the live recording, to which Grindstone owes a heavy debt). But these are quibbles. What the band lacks in musicianship (which isn't much, especially considering their collegiate age), it makes up for in the fact that they are, in the best sense of the word, a band. Many jazz bands are not bands at all, but only passing partners who play when there is money to be had. The Quintet, thankfully, is not one of those bands.

Throughout, the fuzzy guitar does best harmonizing or synchronizing with the trumpet to give Grindstone's heads a raspy undertone. The guitar's atmospheric contributions to the songs cannot be understated; on songs like "Daisy Chain" and "The Tides of War," the flanger and occasional pedal loops pull an otherwise clean and acoustic band into a sonic world of pseudo-modernity. The guitar's regular injection of pentatonic rock riffs also works to ensure that Grindstone falls on the contemporary side of the pre/post - Bitches Brew divide.

The album's most important timbrel modifier is Bartlett-Webber's drums themselves. Throughout Grindstone the drums are so thoughtful and present that they almost take on the role of another melody instrument, playing percussive counterpoint throughout heads and solos. These rhythmic accents are key to the success of sparse moments in songs like "Tales of the Irrelephant."

Closing the album with a string quartet could have been a disaster. Such a sharp change in timbre could have derailed the album quicker than a tour bus stalled on a train track. But Bartlett-Webber smartly starts the first movement of his quartet with a theme identical to the first few bars of "Tales of the Irrelephant." This timbrel shift allows Bartlett-Webber and his quartet of able players to reexamine the rich theme via reharmonization, truncation, acceleration, and retardation.

The quartet itself unveils itself in three movements (Concern, Brooding, and Rest). Here, Bartlett-Webber's affinity for dissonance and sharp modulations to distant keys (an affinity hinted at with the jazz quintet) fully blooms. The tendrils of Bartlett-Webber's string lines ensnare like four boa sirens singing a victim to sleep as they sweetly suffocate him. The quartet is beautiful and pained.

As good as Ear To The Grindstone is, its most exciting aspect is the relative youth of its mastermind. To produce an album of such breadth, quality, and consistency at such a young age portends well for Bartlett-Webber's future. Grindstone begs the question, what will he do next?