After three excellent solo acoustic guitar albums, Burlington guitarist Paul Asbell has brought together some of Vermont’s best jazz musicians for an album of original material.
“Burmese Panther,” an odd title for sure, is a return to the Asbell who performed with the electric jazz group Kilimanjaro, and The Unknown Blues Band with Big Joe Burrell. Asbell composed eight of the nine tracks and brought in jazz musicians who are highly regarded in Vermont and elsewhere.
Asbell plays acoustic and electric guitars accompanied by veteran bassist Clyde Stats and drummer Gabriel Jarrett, who lay down the rhythmic foundation of the album. Tom Cleary plays piano and Hammond B-3 organ on four tracks. Chris Peterman’s tenor and soprano saxophone work is on seven tracks. Michael Zsoldos contributes tenor sax and clarinet on two tracks. Jake Whitesell adds alto and baritone sax, and Ray Vega and Dave Ellis contribute trumpet on several tracks as well.
This is truly an ensemble album, with Asbell laying back so there is a lot of room for the horn players to step to the microphone and deliver their superb interpretations of this new music.
Now in his 50th year performing, Asbell became the backbone of several highly touted Vermont bands after moving to Vermont in the 1970s. Kilimanjaro and The Unknown Blues Band with Big Joe Burrell were frequent headliners at clubs in the Queen City and festivals around the state and New England, including Burlington Discover Jazz.
In the late 1990s Asbell began his solo recording career based on his love of American Roots music. Those three CDs, “Steel String Americana,” “Roots & Branches” and “From Adamant to Atchafalaya,” received high praise from this writer and many reviewers of acoustic guitar. While many of the tracks on those albums were Asbell’s interpretations of well-known material, he didn’t stop writing music, and composed for the various groups he played with.
“All the while, I’ve been working intently behind the scenes on this seemingly never-ending self-improvement program called ‘being a jazz musician’ ... and some days, I actually think I’m making some headway!” he wrote in the kickstarter notes that helped raise the funds for this new project.
Asbell need not worry. He’s a preeminent jazz musician. What stands out in “Burmese Panther” is the space he leaves for his band members to perform. We never worry about what sounds Asbell will produce; they are always melodic, in the groove and intelligent. This attitude hovers over the recording. From Jarrett on drums and Stats on bass to Peterman and the other horn players, we get sterling performances.
If you want to visualize this album, consider this scenario: You’ve found a local club that features jazz music. You enter and the band is playing. The musicians are at ease; the leader, who is the guitarist, plays with an aura of supreme confidence but never hogs the microphone. Everyone shines and the music flows from one number to the next as you sit there, drink in hand, knowing you’ve found a jazz nirvana.
Asbell wrote in his fundraiser that, “Over the last 4 years, I’ve been working regularly with an excellent crew of players, who’ve really helped to develop my vision of guitar-based ensemble jazz. We’ve worked up a substantial repertoire of tunes, which I’ve written for these specific musicians, and regular gigs have allowed us to really dial things in.” The dial was set at the highest level and the resulting recording sparkles.
I found the title of this CD, which is track three on the album, somewhat enigmatic. What exactly is a “Burmese Panther?” There are no Burmese panthers in the wild as far as I know. But the internet reveals that a Bombay cat is a type of short-haired cat developed by breeding sable Burmese and black American shorthair cats, to produce a cat of mostly Burmese type, but with a sleek, panther-like black coat.
Perhaps this explains the animal and the album best, “Overall, the Bombay breed is intelligent, playful, and attention-seeking.” In that context I agree.
If you are a jazz fan, this album is a must. If you are a fan of Asbell but don’t know much about his electric and compositional side, you need to listen to this CD.