The story of bassist/composer Michael Blanco’s third album as a leader, Spirit Forward, is primarily the story of how he assembled this particular group of musicians, and how they in turn inspired the composer to write compelling music for this unique combination of musical personalities; the Michael Blanco Quartet, featuring John Ellis (tenor saxophone), Kevin Hays (piano) and Clarence Penn (drums).
The album title Spirit Forward is a bar-tending term for a type of New York cocktail made with strong spirits (like the Manhattan or Martini) that seeks to highlight and enhance the flavour of the base spirit, not to mask it. These cocktails are harmonious and balanced, yet bold.
The Mystic Chord is a six-note chord used by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, and believed by him to have mystical properties. While practicing at home, Blanco discovered that he could create a bass line with an interesting 6/4 groove by spelling out this chord one note at a time.
The melody has a kind of funky, lopsided quality, and the rest of the song explores the possibilities of the “Mystic Chord” sonority, with a melodically contrasting “B” section that is in 5/4 time – juxtaposing nicely with the 6/4 groove.
With Notes From Underground , Blanco thought of the low register piano/bass counter-melody that offsets the tenor lead at various points of the tune, as well as the fact that so many of his favourite jazz clubs are in basement rooms – hence the double entendre.
Song Without Words is a tuneful composition that you could easily imagine being sung. The band loosens up and stretches out a little more, but still captures the heart-on-your-sleeve lyricism that Blanco was going for.
Finally, Spirit Forward has a swinging, open feel, and an optimistic vibe. The form has a few mixed meters, and some harmonic twists and turns that make it both challenging and fun to play.