The Paul Motian Trio is the obvious model for Turtleboy, a similarly structured trio made up of tenor saxist Jonathan Lindhorst, guitarist Ryan Butler, and drummer Adam Miller, with the three respectively assuming the roles Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, and Motian himself adopt in the latter's outfit. It's a connection Turtleboy itself is quick to acknowledge, as the decision to form the band kicked in after a fortuitous encounter with Motian's trio at the Village Vanguard in 2006 (Lindhorst clarifies that the Turtleboy name was inspired by the visual image of Motian). And the recording clearly shows Lindhorst exhibiting the kind of robust, full-bodied sound one associates with Lovano and Stan Getz and Butler playing with the same kind of a textural sensitivity Frisell brings to his immediately identifiable sound.
But modeling oneself after another's band doesn't mean that the one is no more than a carbon copy of the other, and Turtleboy's Smart Matter clearly shows the currently NYC-based trio branching out into other directions too. The title track's breezily melodic twists and turns and tempo shifts lend it a pronounced Metheny-esque character, something that is made all the more evident when wordless vocals accompany the sax in voicing the piece's guiding theme. “Arms Wide Open” offers Butler an extended solo spotlight that finds the guitarist colouring outside the lines, so to speak, and suggesting as much of an affinity for John Scofield's playing as Frisell's. The atmospheric twang coursing through “Vampyroteuthus Infernalis,” on the other hand, could easily be mistaken for Frisell's, just as the piece itself could be taken for a Motian composition, while the kind of intricacy associated with the so-called Math Rock genre emerges in the tangled lines of “Inner Space.” The trio gives Radiohead's “Pyramid Song” an impassioned and sympathetic reading that ultimately makes the piece feel more like a Turtleboy original than cover, and its eclectic side also comes to the fore during the closing track, a heartfelt cover of Stan Rogers' folk classic “Northwest Passage” that would have been better served with the ragged vocal chorus omitted.Though the group acknowledges its love for avant-garde music and cites The Bad Plus as a role model, Turtleboy's music is eminently more accessible than something by Cecil Taylor or Peter Brötzmann, for example. Smart Matter's tracks offer easily navigable entry points in their memorable melodic guideposts, and the musicians refrain from venturing into territories that would be too extreme for the prototypical jazz listener. The musicians interact with a loose yet relaxed confidence yet do so within the self-imposed confines of concise song structures and lengths (only one of the album's thirteen songs tips past the seven-minute mark). If there are elements of free jazz and improv present, they've been integrated into an equally tight and loose group sound that's been honed to what by now appears veritably telepathic. That loose vibe clearly comes to the fore during “Separation Anxiety,” where the three indulge in both bluesy balladeering and some of the project's most “out” moments. Smart Matter doesn't represent a revolutionary musical advance on any one genre but that's not, one suspects, the goal the group had in mind; one instead presumesTurtleboy set out to produce a solid and well-rounded statement of where it's currently at and on such grounds the hour-long recording succeeds more than credibly.