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Track listing:
1. Nuttin' Much
2. And Finally Grow
3. I Love You
4. Maybe Not
5. Specialest
6. Stepping Stones
7. Pick Yourself Up
8. Mood Swing
9. Inner Urge
10. Maddy Waddy
11. Four WInds
12. Rudy's Glow

Jay Elfenbein - bass and treble viola da gamba, Ruby gamba
Tom Nelson - piano
Ratzo Harris - bass
Satoshi Takeishi - percussion
Andrée Pagès - vocals

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click here to learn more about GambaDream

GambaDream (Widdershins Recordings)

by J Hunter

Thinking outside the box is what sets jazz apart from all other musical genres. Examples range from the sublime (Miles’ blues-rockin’ tribute to heavyweight champion Jack Johnson) to the ridiculous (Re-inventing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme as a big-band record). Sometimes all it takes is putting a new instrument into the mix. With GambaDream, Jay Elfenbein introduces us to the viola da gamba – or “viol” for short.
Described in the press release as “an ancient instrument reborn”, the viol can be plucked like a bass, strummed like a guitar, or bowed like a violin or a cello. On the bonus track “Ruby’s Glow”, Elfenbein does all this and more, using an electric viol (called a “Ruby Gamba”, for the instrument maker that created it) to create every sound, including percussion, and serve up a Ponty-esque romp.
For the rest of GambaDream, Elfenbein combines his background in jazz and classical composition with a standard jazz quartet to create a disc that, while giving equal shrift to both musical genres, owes more than a little to the gold standard for string-based jazz, Le Hot Club of France. The difference is that, while a violin would have been accepted without question in this format, Elfenbein’s viol takes some getting used to.
I mentioned earlier that the viol could be played like a violin or a cello. The viol also sounds “like” a violin or a cello – almost, but not quite. There’s a difference in harmonics – sometimes subtle, sometimes decidedly not – that makes one of these things sound not like the other. Sometimes – as in the opener, “Nuttin’ Much”, it’s interesting, and infuriating when Elfenbein’s building solo is cut off in favor of Tom Nelson’s piano. Other times – like in the suite-like “Specialest”, or the improv-based “Maddy Waddy” – the tone gets too strong, too dissonant. Combined with Elfenbein’s mordant fascination with minor chords, it can all be a little much.
I appreciate Elfenbein trying to expand his color palate by adding vocals, but Andree Pages truly seems out of her depth, both vocally and lyrically. Where she is obviously comfortable on her standard-driven disc Swings Both Ways, here Pages seems like she’s just trying to keep up. The opposite is true for ex-Billy Hart sideman Tom Nelson, whose comfort zone extends from Elfenbein’s complicated originals to great work-ups of Cole Porter’s “I Love You”, Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge”, and a stellar treatment of Dave Holland’s “Four Winds”. The latter pieces are where the unit jumps and dances, and Nelson works with bassist Ratso Harris and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi to give Elfenbein the best canvas possible to showcase the viol.
I give Jay Elfenbein all props for trying to do something different, particularly in this age where “staying the same” is lionized. But where small steps and short distances might have been a better choice, Elfenbein chose to run the marathon. He should not give up this race, by any means; pieces of GambaDream have a sure allure, and the viol does have a place in jazz’ lexicon. I’m interested to see where this course leads next.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.