Jon Menges, Spirit of 3, Spirit of 4 Review
A Masterful Blend of Trio and Quartet Jazz Conversations
by Nolan DeBuke
Within the diverse tableau of jazz, Jon Menges stands out with Spirit of 3, Spirit of 4, a compelling showcase of thirteen original compositions that intertwine the intimate discourse of a trio with the richly textured dynamism of a quartet. Released on July 28, 2023, this album is a collection of twelve original Menges compositions that present six songs in a trio setting and six selections with the layered dynamism of a quartet.
From the outset, Menges captivates the listener with the album’s mood—distinctly sophisticated, yet brimming with a raw, organic energy. The drummerless trio (tracks 1-6), featuring the synergy of Pete McCann’s guitar and Evan Gregor’s bass, offers a rhythmic exploration that invites listeners to lean in and appreciate the nuanced interplay. When the quartet enters (tracks 7-12), with Nathan Childers’ saxophone, Joe Fitzgerald’s bass, and Robert Weiss’ drums, it creates a broader harmonic conversation, enriching the soundscape.
“Anchor in the Path” sets a precedent with its rhythmic intricacies and a showcase of McCann’s guitar skill and fluidity, weaving through bop and modern jazz lines with eloquence. Menges’ trumpet, in all its melodic glory, demonstrates the power of thematic development within complex harmonic frameworks. “Stairs,” with its full-bodied up-tempo swing, and the folk-infused narrative of “Tree of Hope,” where Menges’ flugelhorn dances gracefully, also stand out as exemplars of the trio’s cohesiveness.
Transitioning to the quartet, “Coqui” delivers a relaxed swing over minor blues changes, allowing Childers’ tenor saxophone to sing with melodic richness. The trumpet and saxophone dialogues in “Heartbreak” display an emotional depth that is accentuated by the chordless backdrop, creating a poignant moment of reflection. “Somethin'” closes out with an upbeat swing, highlighting Menges’ ability to construct a narrative solo that respects and expands upon the jazz tradition.
The interplay between the musicians is the foundational support brought to life by Menges’ adept leadership, nurturing a creative space where the unique voice of each artist is not just heard but is integral to the ensemble’s harmony. The trio’s conversational ease—so deftly demonstrated in the first six tracks—is skillfully expanded upon by the quartet’s cohesive and fuller sound. This transition is anchored by the impeccable rhythm section of Fitzgerald and Weiss, elevating the dynamic leads of Menges and Childers. Significantly, by presenting the trio performances in the first half and then unveiling the more complex quartet sounds in the latter, Menges carefully constructs the arc of the album. This deliberate structure underscores Menges’ visionary approach to the project, creating a crescendo of musical interplay that mirrors the thematic evolution Menges seems to envisage.
Menges’ compositions are as accessible as they are sophisticated, grounded in the language of straight-ahead jazz yet full of surprises. This balance makes the album immediately engaging, allowing the finer points of the musicianship to shine through without overwhelming the listener.
The recording quality is nothing short of stellar. Each instrument is given room to breathe, with a mix that places the listener at the best seat in the house. The clarity and warmth of the production serve the music faithfully, ensuring that the emotional intent behind each note is fully realized.
Through the album’s journey, there are many emotional and conceptual themes at play. The track titles and the moods they evoke suggest a narrative arc that is at once personal and universal, with each composition acting as a vignette in a larger story of hope, introspection, and joy.
In today’s intricate jazz climate, one can confidently assess the various nuances found in Spirit of 3, Spirit of 4, allowing it to resonate profoundly within the jazz community. It is a nuanced, layered, and emotive work that speaks to Menges’ maturity as a musician and composer. For anyone seeking an album that bridges the soulful roots of jazz with a modern sensibility, this is a highly recommended listening experience—a solid addition to the vibrant continuum of jazz evolution.