Stylistically speaking, it’s extremely hard to pinpoint San Francisco Bay Area bassist Mike Sweetland. As you’ll hear on his new CD, Stringsongruvscaipsoundtreks, that’s a very good thing. The music on this intriguing new release, while centered within a vigorous jazz aesthetic, reflects Sweetland’s impressive breadth of musical influences and the broad scope of work he’s done over a 20-year career: jazz, funk, classical, pop, flamenco and more. But for all the stylistic diversity, the unrelenting current of quality and passion on Stringsongruvscaipsoundtreks is unmistakable: fiery, virtuosic playing, intriguing compositions, imagination and élan, all driven by Sweetland’s inspiration and impressive creative vision.
It doesn’t hurt one bit that Sweetland is aided, here, by a roster of distinguished musical masters, jazz and otherwise. Just for example, Taylor Eigsti, widely regarded as one of the rising dynamos of jazz piano, and guitarist Mimi Fox, an international star with a bushel of well received CDs to her credit, make superb contributions on three and two songs, respectively. Jacqueline Rago, musical director of the Venezuelan Music Project makes an appearance on quatro, a lute-like Venezuelan string instrument. And Jay Lane, acid jazz drum hero and veteran of the Charlie Hunter Trio and Bob Weir’s Ratdog is on hand as well.
Sweetland refers to this impressive assemblage as Mike Sweetland & A Lot of People. That’s apt as far as it goes, but by far an understatement in terms of quality. And speaking of names, what about the CD’s title, Stringsongruvscaipsoundtreks? This mouthful of a moniker goes a long way to explaining Sweetland’s concept behind the recording as a whole.
“Some of the compositions on the CD were originally written with lyrics but recorded here with instruments playing the melodies instead of vocalists. Those are the ‘string songs”, Sweetland explains. “‘Gruvscaip’ is inspired by Robert Fripp’s description of his compositions as ‘soundscapes.’ I'm a bass player, though, and my job is to groove, so I think of the more funk-oriented numbers here as ‘groovescapes.’ ‘soundtreks’ is another play on words. Soundtrack music was my first love as a child and the ‘trek’ is the journey any composer makes when searching for an elusive sound.”
The CD opens with the atmospheric “Badlands,” with Eigsti prominently featured. Colorful and brooding in turns, Eigsti’s rolling, compelling piano work propels the number along a brooding sonic landscape, with Sweetland’s dark baselines and Keith Luce’s prodding drums underscoring the sense of drama. “Waking Dream” is a lilting, folk-inspired duet with guitarist Nick Koutsoukis that vividly provides the title’s morning reverie.
The toe tapping “Bop City” features guitarist extraordinaire Fox. The execution and interplay here is rousing, indeed, and the piece just swings like mad. Listen, as well, to the classically-inspired treat, “Searching,” a duet with cellist Wanda Warkentin, the flamenco fire of “The Knock,” featuring guitarist Jack Gates and Eigsti’s return, with drummer Jay Lane (of Ratdog and Charlie Hunter Trio fame) on the bolero/funk fun of “House”.
You get the idea. Stringsongruvscaipsoundtreks, at its heart, is a well conceived musical tapestry that comes together as an eminently satisfying listening experience.
The personnel in The Mike Sweetland Trio include Stephen Pocus (piano) and Jake Shandling (drums). riff-raff personnel are Erika Oba (piano), Mal Raff (vibraphone), Dave Murray (drums), and Bob Smith (guitar).