Review: After Midnight “Beginning to See the Light”

After Midnight “Beginning to See the Light”

10 Mar, 2011 Bryan Rodgers

The hot, swinging sounds of the 1930’s are alive and well on After Midnight’s Beginning to See the Light.  Drawing inspiration from Benny Goodman (the undisputed “King of Swing”) and other greats like Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Lionel Hampton, and Count Basie, clarinetist Roger Campbell leads a unique, diverse ensemble through a litany of timeless tunes on this album.  It’s uncommon for an album of re-interpreted material to deliver as much satisfaction and listening joy as Beginning to See the Light.  The band not only injects the material with a necessary dose of modern style, but pushes itself beyond the boundaries of swing, tossing in elements of nearly every jazz style imaginable.  The members of the band combine into a practically unheard of formation that emphasizes flexibility along with traditionalism.  Campbell is the driving force behind the band’s fresh interpretations, but like the great jazz clarinetists before him, he never pushes ahead of the group with his own interests.  His style nicely blends the city-bred Goodman sound with the Dixieland leanings of players like Pete Fountain, and the musicians aligned on Beginning to See the Light have no trouble following along.
Every song features one perfect solo or sinfully sweet vocal passage after another.  Guitarist Mike McCullough threatens to steal the album at every turn, offering a satisfying solo each time he’s given the chance.  Organist and pianist Justin Adams is equally adept at finding righteous Hammond-style grooves and constructing elegant piano passages.  Greg Harris’ vibraphone work is a constant melodic presence, essential to achieving the band’s ultimate goal and still inventive when featured in a solo.  Harris gets after it with gusto.  You can hear him vocally exhorting along with his solos.  Vocalist Rekha Ohal possesses a charming, effortless coo that is part sexy, part studious, in that inimitable female jazz singer fashion.  The listener immediately knows that Ohal not only knows how to sing, but knows her stuff when it comes to music, because there’s no way she settled on such an appealing style without researching the greats.  Influences aside, her voice sounds a bit like Patricia Barber, a bit like Norah Jones, and entirely at home on fare like “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” a Walter Donaldson tune with Gus Kahn lyrics popularized by Nina Simone.  The folks down at Tin Pan Alley would have no doubt loved writing their jazzy pop songs for a voice like Ohal’s.  Of course, all of that plucking and singing and blowing goes nowhere without a reliable rhythm section and Beginning to See the Light features a quintessential jazz duo in that slot.  Drummer Jim Moore teams with bassist Ced Forsyth to provide a series of flawless rhythms that will have the listener subconsciously tapping along with Moore’s hi-hat while their brain dreamily follows Forsyth’s bold bass lines.

Their take on Goodman’s “Stompin at the Savoy” finds the full sextet in action along with a quick clarinet, guitar, and bass breakdown.  This kind of stylistic metamorphosis can be found throughout the album.  The latter-day Tin Pan Alley gem “Comes Love” features a striding piano breakdown by Adams that bleeds into a trio of bass, drums, and piano and back again before the rest of the crew flawlessly rejoins the action.  Adams and Campbell then work in tandem with Harris on vibes to craft an irresistibly swinging finale.  Not surprisingly, the band finds the work of Duke Ellington right in their wheelhouse.  “I’m Beginning to See the Light” moves along with a confidence born of countless repetition, and the jittery “Cottontail” brings the lengthy affair to a close, joyfully ending the album’s generous 65-minute runtime.  For lovers of swing who may be jaded by listening to the same old recordings, Beginning to See the Light could be a new favorite album.

Review by Bryan Rodgers
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)