JC4: Can You Believe It?
Red Piano Records

Unlike trumpet- and saxophone-led ensembles, ones fronted by trombonists are somewhat of a rarity. Jazz, of course, is studded with names such as Glenn Miller, J.J. Johnson, and Bob Brookmeyer, whereas in punk-funk circles, Defunkt's Joseph Bowie springs to mind. Straddling both of those worlds—at least insofar as his music is presented on Can You Believe It?—is JC Sanford, joined on this hour-long set by guitarist Mike Baggetta, acoustic bassist Dave Ambrosio, and drummer Russ Meissner.

Sanford's made a name for himself as the music conductor for the bands of John Hollenbeck and Alice Coltrane, among others, but of late he's been garnering attention as the leader of his own outfits. His 2014 release, Views from the Inside, featured him playing in a jazz orchestra context and thus a rather different one from the quartet model heard on the new outing. By definition, the smaller unit can't match the larger one for orchestral colour, but it does allow the musicians more elbow room, not to mention a generous number of individual solo opportunities. Can You Believe It? presents a well-rounded and well-crafted set that shows Sanford and company breezily settling into broad stylistic terrain, jazz naturally but funk, rock, R&B, and Latin, too.

With Baggetta digging into a raw funk line and the rhythm section locked in, the recording's funk-jazz blend is on display the moment the title track gets things moving. On the solo front, Sanford leads the way with a smoothly agile and richly expressive turn that's cued just right, neither reticent nor overbearing, and as funky is “DumPac”—even if it's delivered in 7/4 time.

Many of the track titles carry a personal resonance. Named after Sanford's mouse-stalking cat Jazu, “Ja-chan on Patrol” wends briskly through passages bluesy and free-floating, Baggetta contributing an oblique and slippery solo and Meissner all the while stoking a controlled storm of drums and cymbals. The swinging “Yamete,” on the other hand, takes its title from one of the first Japanese words Sanford learned from his wife, pianist Asuka Kakitani, while the sultry outro, “Chico's First Date,” offers an appropriately Latin-tinged tribute to the late Chico O'Farrill. The sole non-original is a dreamy rendering of John Scofield's “Easy for You,” where it's certainly possible to hear a faint echo of his playing in Baggetta's musings. The empathetic playing of the quartet members is strongly evident in their interactions on both the Scofield cover and the wistful ballad “Forest Hills,” something that's especially noticeable when the playing veers into meter-less episodes.

With all but one of the seven compositions credited to him, Sanford's clearly in charge, but he's also generous about sharing space. Baggetta is naturally prominent, and a good thing too, given how effective a contrast his often gritty attack is to the leader's warm, burnished tone (check out the guitarist's burning, distortion-heavy turn on “Yamete,” for example). And with multiple solos of their own distributed throughout the set, Ambrosio and Meissner are solidly accounted for, too.

November 2016