By: Eliza Coolidge
When I received Mr. Soffiato's freshly released album Just Add Water, I couldn't help but be impressed and lightly miffed by the origami-like sleeve construction. What seemed like a perfectly mundane unwrapping blossomed into a course of peeling, fanning folds. Finally, the CD offered itself, tucked cavalierly between two creased sides.
The album opens with Soffiato's solemn invocation on guitar in "Alexander". Without much development, the drums and bass impatiently drop their groove, stifling the guitar and brushing it to the background. The alto sax joins in on the conclusion, foisting a melody. The line is repetitive and indolent, like crawling on a treadmill and moving your legs tirelessly, but not arriving anywhere new. The dynamics swiftly drop in a retributive change-up, the alto supporting with a two-note polyrhythmic stutter. The guitar brilliantly transmutes into a bubbling cascade of effects, spreading the sonic canvas with interest and imagination. The drums underpin with momentous skittering and rattling and a composed conviction and confidence. And then the alto pardons its earlier dullness by developing into a rapid neurotic exchange with Soffiato. Excitement and direction propel forward, then suddenly and organically they break like waves washing over the shore into the opening theme. As soon as the head of the tune was lost, there was finally space to hear the elegance of the responsive musical communication flowing in the quartet.
The next track, "Tens of Us", leads with the drummer’s tender conversation, as if he were whispering small obsequious coos. He is dynamic yet sensitive, almost painterly. Letting his rhythmic choices develop melodically, he sustains swells or cuts them, creating a field of lively shapes and colors. The bass listens commendably, off-setting the drums and providing an even surface for the melody to stretch over. The alto sounds as if he swallowed an entire bottle of baby oil and consequently all of his musical excretions are slippery and bottom-smooth. I would like him to dirty himself up a bit, or just not wash his hands so compulsively.
As the song moves along, the drums increase in volume and intensify their attack without overpowering the quieter instruments’ integrity. Most drummers fail to exercise subtlety while playing loudly. Not here.
Title track "Just Add Water" kindles an awakening of sorts, speeding forward while the guitar and sax trade-off in a paced race, a guns un-slung showdown. The initial excitement thins with the many meter and groove changes, the continuity diffracted and agonized. The sin is redeemed with "Fanfare", a track with a patient and earnest opening. It is reserved in the best sense of the word, not unlike finding intrigue in staring at the same square foot of ground for 2 hours and discovering little worlds in and of themselves. Though beautiful, the melody is mono-dimensional, the guitar and alto playing in unison for its entirety. This is the arranging for most of the songs- the guitar and sax continually hold hands and walk over the same melody. Briefly, in the intro of "Il Rabdomante", we hear Soffiato's skill fully. Fluidly traversing all registers, Soffiato deftly builds and transfigures the temporal and harmonic line, making me wish this track was a solo guitar piece. What follows doesn't seem worth the intelligence and profundity of its prologue.
The last quarter of the album contain the true beginnings of invention. "The Giant, Intro" welcomes refreshing textures from the entirety of the CD. Machines fuss and music boxes tinker. It transports. We are somewhere playful, imaginative and lost. The idea is taken for a ride and expelled all too quickly— a question half asked in fear of its answer.
The musical skill on this album is its most impressive feature. These are talented technicians with great group rapport. I only question their orthodox. They are working with very familiar sounds, lines and procedures from the modern jazz lexicon, and what results is a detrimental facelessness. I look forward to hearing this quartet's next project, in hopes that they expound on the flashes of invention that freckle this album.