The Pacific Jazz Group Review
The Pacific Jazz Group: Contemporary West Coast Jazz
by Nolan DeBuke
At a time when modern jazz often leans towards virtuosity at the expense of emotion, The Pacific Jazz Group’s self-titled album on Ropeadope Records emerges like a refreshing sea breeze—wafting from a bygone era yet wholly relevant today. Dred Scott, a maestro who has caressed the ivories across genres and shared stages with Liza Minnelli and Moby, embarks on a soulful journey back to his roots with this album. Anchored by an ensemble of equally versatile and talented musicians, the album evokes the romanticism of a sunlit drive down California’s iconic Highway 1, every note a homage to the Golden State’s scenic vistas and its timeless West Coast Jazz traditions.
Following Dred Scott’s trailblazing direction on the piano, the ensemble for The Pacific Jazz Group features a set of musicians whose combined experiences traverse decades and various musical genres. Eric Crystal’s versatile saxophone playing adds depth and flair, drawing from his rich experiences with musicians like Boz Scaggs and Huey Lewis. On the bass, John Wiitala’s seasoned artistry forms a solid groundwork for the ensemble’s explorations, a skill honed by years of collaboration with jazz greats like Joe Henderson and Bud Shank. Smith Dobson on the drum set adds rhythmic intricacy to the mix, bringing with him a revered jazz lineage that shapes his refined and passionate approach. Together, they constitute a formidable foursome, each adding his own flair and expertise to Scott’s nostalgic trip down West Coast Jazz lane. Their collaborative chemistry transcends technical proficiency, achieving a kind of alchemy that brings Scott’s vision to life.
“Bernie’s Tune” exemplifies the album’s aesthetic ethos. It has a classic arrangement that allows for nuanced interplay and that classic elegant West Coast swing style. Scott’s artistic maturity shines in this up-tempo swing setting, where the pianist’s nimble fingers channel both the ebullience and the technical precision emblematic of West Coast Jazz. While West Coast Jazz is often thought of as not having an emphasis on technical ability, Scott’s lyrical solo illuminates how mastery of technique can create an effortless flow, allowing the listener to bask in the music’s melodic virtues. Crystal’s saxophone solo is lively, and he interjects bluesy concepts with his long-flowing ideas, reminding one of the ebb and flow of the Pacific.
“Casa De Luz,” a Shorty Rogers composition, adds another layer to the album’s lively flow by offering a Latin A-section and a swing B-section, like a well-prepared paella that balances disparate ingredients to create a cohesive whole. Scott’s solo here is a model of lyrical fluidity, ably supported by the rhythm section of Wiitala and Dobson. Crystal’s contributions are equally stellar, particularly his command over Latin and swing rhythms, and his use of melodic motifs. Wiitala’s bass offers a backbone as robust as a well-aged red wine, while Dobson’s drums carry the rhythm like an undercurrent of spices. The ensemble proves that the aesthetic of ‘West Coast cool jazz’ can be maintained across rhythmical variations and styles, demonstrating their collective mastery.
“Nights at the Turntable” is a poignant throwback; this track tips its hat to Gerry Mulligan’s original, infusing it with modern sensibilities without losing the original’s authenticity. It’s like taking a cherished family recipe and adding your own signature twist. Scott’s solo stands out for its dynamic range and swing feel, a perfect example of how technical expertise can serve emotional depth. Crystal, given room to soar without the piano for the first half of his solo, adds a layer of complexity that is as intricate as it is nostalgic of World Pacific Records.
The Pacific Jazz Group bears similarities to works by Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, and other Pacific Jazz Label stalwarts, but it distinguishes itself through Scott’s unique touch, much like an artisanal dish inspired by a classic but distinguished by the chef’s individual flair. The album’s release amid an increasingly experimental jazz landscape allows it to serve as a refreshing palate cleanser, reminding us of the genre’s rich and flavorful roots. Its accessibility and nostalgia could very well serve as an entry point for new audiences to explore the world of jazz, particularly its West Coast variants.
If music is the food of love, The Pacific Jazz Group is a well-curated tasting menu—diverse yet cohesive, modern yet traditional. Scott’s piano solos are the star ingredient, their nostalgia-tinged notes resonating like the aftertaste of a cherished family recipe. These are accompanied by ensemble contributions that elevate the meal to a fine dining experience, satisfying both the gourmand and the casual diner within us.
While not directly related to the album, understanding the difference between West Coast and East Coast swing dancing styles adds an extra layer of cultural significance. Both originated in the 1950s and 1960s but took on distinctive characteristics—West Coast being smooth and flowing with an emphasis on hip movement, originating in California; East Coast being fast-paced, energetic with leg movement, originating in New York City. This can be metaphorically translated to the jazz styles of each coast, where West Coast Jazz has often been seen as more laid-back and smooth, in contrast to the often more aggressive and energetic East Coast Jazz. Much like the contrasting swing dancing styles of each coast, The Pacific Jazz Group imbues its West Coast Jazz offerings with a smooth, hip-moving elegance, serving as a sonic counterpart to the dance floor.
Whether viewed through the lens of academic rigor or emotional resonance, The Pacific Jazz Group serves as a sonic feast that nourishes the soul, stimulates the intellect, and invigorates the body. For those yearning for the comforting flow and lyricism of West Coast Jazz in an era of genre-blurring musical norms, this album strikes a harmonious balance between contemporary flair and classic hues.