In the years following the advent of fusion, that period's eclecticism helped to advance guitar improvisation from strict jazz and blues purism. Players like Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, and Ray Russell have enjoyed the fruits of this versatility over the past 30-odd years, and influences as wide-ranging as North African music, jazz, rock, classical, and minimalism have informed the contemporary jazz guitar lineage. Not that one needs a history lesson to "get" local guitarist Ben Siems's music, but as slippery and refreshingly contemporary as his playing is, it's worth keeping in mind.
Siems and drummer Jeremy Hauer are the Willie August Project (named for Siems's grandfather), and in six years of playing together, they've developed a strong mid-range telepathy resulting in subtle, seamless music that, while not shattering any great boundaries, bridges gaps between such things as structure and freedom. Joined here by bassists Scot Hornick and Jim Chenoweth, as well as pianist Laura Caviani for two tracks, the Willie August Project offers consistently inventive improvisation on this direct-to-two-track session of original tunes.
Putting Siems in the company of Towner and Abercrombie or the Wes Montgomery-Emily Remler school isn't unfounded. More modally based than the latter players yet without the pyrotechnical tendencies that have been known to invade the former, Siems occupies a niche in between several of mainstream jazz guitar's poles. While blues and folk music informed Siems's earlier explorations as a solo performer on the East Coast, he seems to approach both of these styles with a more classically derived method, one that has less of a tendency to fudge. Nevertheless, as a single-note player Siems is technically adept and consistently surprising in his melodic choices, and the rhythmic interplay between him and Hauer is at times rather astounding.
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