Ryan Blotnick: Kush

Ryan Blotnick is nothing if not adventurous. In Maine, his current home base after a decade-long stint in New York, the guitarist regularly performs in a trio with drummer RJ Miller where bridges between ambient and jazz are built using sampled loops and grooves, and he's also a member of New York's Akoya Afrobeat, which blends elements of West African and African-American forms, and has performed in South African saxophonist Duke Mseleku's groups. With such variety the air he naturally breathes, one shouldn't be too surprised to discover that his latest recording of original material, Kush (the title taken from a New York club where at the tender age of sixteen he first met saxophonist Michael Blake), catalyzes those different areas of interest into a rewarding collection. It's telling that in speaking about the album's eight tracks, Blotnick cites figures as varied as Ali Farka Touré, Alice Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Bill Evans, and Billy Strayhorn.

The point about influences shouldn't be overemphasized, however, as Blotnick and company—Miller, bassist Scott Colberg, and Blake on tenor and soprano—weave them into the music subtly, such that while an African feel might be detected in the rhythm section's playing, it emerges faintly, even subliminally, within the laid-back swing stoked by Colberg and Miller (by way of analogy, one might think of how a New Orleans feel emerges within Ed Blackwell's playing).

On the title track, hand bells and Blake's serpentine soprano imbue the modal-styled intro with exotic character before the guitarist, abetted by the bassist's lightly swinging groove (in 17/8 no less), perpetuates the mood with aromatic textures of his own. Here and elsewhere, Blotnick's writing establishes a clear melodic framework for the musicians to work with while also granting their personalities ample freedom to roam. The guitarist and saxophonist are at their most lyrical on “And Bright Snow,” yet while soloing is in plentiful supply, an equal amount of the quartet's energy focuses on groove.

Playing in the instrument's upper register, Blake's voicings in “Kush” occasionally call Shorter to mind, while the guitarist's delicate shadings add a hint of Frisell-styled Americana to the performance. Sitting in on “Lunenburg” is pedal steel player Jonny Lam, a move that strengthens the Frisell connection, especially when, melodically speaking, the composition itself feels like something that would fit snugly into Rambler's playlist (even if it's guitarist Jacob Bro that Blotnick cite as an inspiration for the track). A relaxed vibe generally pervades the hour-long set (see the bluesy and soulful “Churchy” and the lovely set-closing ballad “Spring”), though “May Day” works a bit of R&B into its Afrojazz-inflected DNA, specifically in the rambunctious groove fashioned by Colberg and Miller. Never, however, is that African dimension more audible than during the Fela-inspired “DX7,” whose wild, show-stopping eleven minutes the four tear into with freewheeling abandon and Coltrane-esque fire. Being so raucous, it's an anomalous moment on this otherwise laid-back set, but hardly unwelcome for being so.

January 2017