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What It Is – Rob Ickes

Rounder Records 11661-0492-2

For many, fusion is a most odious term, capable evoking images
of Kenny G and Frank Sinatra, of Joe Zawinul and smooth jazz past.
Despite the possibilities for danger, many musical advancements have come
forth through fusion: Tony William's Lifetime, most of
John McLaughlin's sundry interests and Graham Haynes' and Uri Caine's
recent mixtures of jazz and classical. The problem with fusion is that
an artist needs exceptional support and the sincere love of classical
or rock to make two ostensible dissonant idioms coalesce adequately.

For dobroist Rob Ickes, the supporting cast combined with his integral
knowledge of jazz, allows What It Is to avoid the large morass which
often consumes so many fusion projects, including Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
Like all fusion attempts, the results can be egregious at points, making one
return to an old Art Blakey record rather than listen to fresh "attempts"
but, overall, Ickes has crafted a fairly intriguing release.

Intriguing because the dobro's sound has been patently linked to
twang-related paradigms: country and bluegrass. However, the instrument's
sound, which emulates an electric slide guitar, has the ability to fit into
a myriad of musical styles. If played properly, the dobro can run a series
of notes which are clear and concise, void of any slur. When necessary – for
example on "Stanford and Son" – the dobro's slides potently mix with the
organ fills, to offer a befitting spin on New Orleans funk.

While Ickes takes an eclectic approach to jazz on What It Is, moving
throughout the discipline's various niches, the inexorable acoustic tracks
remain the finest. Bulwarked by John R. Burr's acoustic piano, Derek Jones's
bass, Paul Hanson's horns and Kendrick Freeman's steady drums, Ickes has the
room to move through various bebop changes. The lineup, which
mimics Alison Brown's current band (which also, coincidentally, contains
both Freeman and Burr as important contributing members), sounds like a
tight, fungible, '50s jazz band, thus offering the foundation for Ickes'
melodic concepts. On the opening "Mr. Goodbar", the listener will have an
arduous task differentiating the track's head and improvisations from most
hard bop releases of past epochs.

This epitomizes the success and plausible failure of Ickes' exploration into
jazz. Throughout the album, the dobro never sounds incongruous with the
surrounding instrumentation. When Ickes solos, his concepts contain a
convoluted jazz quality which forces the other players to react accordingly.
The dobro's malleable nature, which Ickes has exposed, deserves reverence,
but the release's adherence to past paradigms creates only a modicum of
differentiation. Beyond Ickes' inclusion, the album simply consists of
traditional jazz concepts, exemplified via the cover artwork and liner notes
mimicking a demodlue Note release. Although Ickes probably knows, no
matter how recondite and obscure you are within jazz, straight-cool jazz
still remains hip; all reflected in the album's sly title.

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