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Think Tank fails to touch the soul

Chris Kepner | Wednesday, October 29, 2003

You always hear people say that all-star collaborations rarely live up to their expectations. For the most part, those people don’t know what they’re talking about. In the case of Think Tank, however, the music really doesn’t live up to the quality you would expect from five of the biggest names in jazz.

There is something missing from Pat Martino’s playing. No one will deny that he is a technical master on the guitar, but his playing lacks feeling. He seems to be stuck in the be-bop era, frequently coming close to expressing a musical thought, only to stumble and rip off a long line that makes sense harmonically but does nothing for the soul. Be-bop is the language of jazz and should be studied by every player, but its choppy lines and arpeggios find their way into Martino’s playing far too often. It is also disappointing that he leaves all of the comping responsibilities to pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Guitar players, like piano players, need to be both great soloists and great accompanists, and the fact that Martino only fills one of these roles on a record on which he acts as the leader is surprising.

The rest of the group is pretty solid. Rubalcaba, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash make for a tight rhythm section, and Nash’s drumming is especially impressive. Rubalcaba’s comping is tasteful and he exhibits a very soulful touch in his soloing. McBride is one of the best bassists around, and his playing on this record certainly does not disappoint. Lovano, while not at the top of his game, still manages to express himself reasonably well despite an obvious mismatch with Martino. What this group needs, sadly to say, is a different leader. Whether you replace Martino with someone else or simply trim it down to a quartet with Lovano leading, this group could be a whole lot better. There is a certain chemistry that exists in a truly memorable group, and it seems as though the only player that doesn’t mix well is Martino, himself.

Despite this criticism, however, Think Tank is actually an enjoyable album to listen to. Both the casual listener and the student of jazz can put this record on and be entertained. The compositions are not far-reaching or experimental, and there are a couple of pensive ballads mixed in with the up-tempo swing that dominates the record.

Think Tank gets three and a half shamrocks because, although it isn’t spectacular, it is certainly above average. The personnel alone clinched that fact. This all-star collaboration falls short of being memorable, but succeeds at creating something that fans of jazz can appreciate beyond a reasonable doubt.

Contact Chris Kepner at ckepner@nd.edu