Review: Mykeljon and Groovexpress, Ukrainian Doll
Mykeljon and Groovexpress, Ukrainian Doll
When the backbone style of a collaborative jazz group is said to be that of 1960s New York City, my expectations naturally shoot through the roof. Then, when upon further description this jazz group clarifies that their ‘unique flavor’ is a fusion of smooth west coast instrumentation and Latin beats, my heart sinks. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the ways in which traditional and Latin jazz illuminate each other, but their marriage can hardly be called unique—it’s played not only during fabulous summer block parties or outdoor stage concerts, but also in elevators and hotel lobbies. Certain expressions of this genre transport all of my physical sensations into the intensely air conditioned memory of a grocery store line.
That being said, Mykeljon and his band, Groovexpress, are in a word, splendid, and somehow transform jazz with Latin ‘flavor’ into a fresh experience. Their most recent album Ukrainian Doll is absolutely not for the grocery line, but rather a cross between Stevie Wonder instrumentals and Carlos Santana beats—in other words, music for the sensual of heart and skin.
Oh, and mind. I’m surprised that Groovexpress independently released Ukrainian Doll, because of the catchy compositions, yes, but also the brilliant musicianship—that cultivated ability to both tighten into perfection and converse improvisationally is only available to musicians who have worked so long and hard with masters, that they’ve become masters themselves. Frankly, I assumed that the members of Groovexpress were geniuses even before I read their bios, and when I discovered many of them have played with the likes of the John Ferraro, Steve Wiggins, Stevie Wonder, and Kenny Loggins, I knew for sure I was in the presence of greatness, a collaboration unlike most exhibited in modern day releases.
The constant use of traveling solos, primarily between Haggis on harmonica, Mykeljon on guitar, and Robert Kyle on saxophone, and the way the other two of the three instruments fade out almost completely when one is being showcased, allow the intricacies of bass, drums, and piano that make up the background to surface. Also, the choice of which instruments open each track completely determines its pacing and vibe, the obviousness of which makes Ukrainian Doll notably diverse. For example, “E Type Blues” and “High Heels” begin with thick combination of guitar, organ/piano, and drums, then are layered quickly with solo saxophone. The prominent saxophone presence, whose solo is eventually passed to harmonica in both these tracks, creates an easy-listening vibe, but not without a little sexy attitude provided in the expression of the musicians on their instruments.
By contrast, “Pretty Thang,” though it also begins with a saxophone solo, the other instruments quickly join in and harmonically mirror what the sax plays, guitar and harmonica take the helm then, giving the track a distinctly 1960s-ish jazz-rock feel, very “Green Onions” and “Wipeout”-esque.
The tunes that flaunt harmonica as the first solo catapult the album from the 1960s to the 1980s, from more traditional jazz into the current musical diaspora that seems to effortlessly (whether effectively or not) combine genres: old time blues riffs between guitar and harmonica in “No Way Home,” tinges of rock when the harmonica gives way to guitar and organ solos in “Foxy Brown,” and romantic 80s movie scene riffs between piano, guitar, harmonica, and light tambourine percussion in “I Say Praise” and “Tell Me Why.”
Regardless of genre, the musicians seem to read each other’s minds, hear with each other’s ears. They move between attitudes, solos, and genre subtleties like water moves between fingers–seamlessly, with strength. This connection is especially evident in the tracks that don’t kick start with a specific instrumental solo, but instead open with all the instruments at once–“Mi Bella Paola,” the title track “Ukrainian Doll,” and the last, very Spanish sounding track, which also attempts to further thicken the instrumentation with vocals, “You are My Fantasy.” In equally distributing the weight among instruments, the playful, syncopated percussion can float up and shine, flourish, and transport us into a rare, unique version of Santana/jazz fusion.
No matter whether these tracks’ moods are determined opening soloists, traveling solos, or the tight harmonies of all the instruments working together, not one inch of the album feels muddled or confused, and the travels we’re taken on as listeners aren’t only to the west coast or South America or back to 1967, but are travels among the senses as well. The whole of Groovexpress’s Ukrainian Doll pulses between that Latin sensuousness of skin, that blues, rock, traditional jazz sensuousness of heart, and the brilliance of each musician’s mind as it connects to that of his instrument and the one beside him.
Reviewed by Alice Neiley
Rating: 5 stars out of 5