Bay Area guitarist Nathan Clevenger has a pretty good formula down, using the tight, silky harmonies of conventional jazz charts and applying those sounds to modern composing ideas. Building from a sextet format with two saxes and a clarinet (Evan Francis occasionally provides flute as well), the songs are recorded with a quilted, gentle sound but create space for some spirited soloing.
Observatory is more a jazz sextet album than a guitar album, and it seems like it would be great music for late summer evenings, especially with tracks like “The Letting Down” and its gentle, bluesy air.
That track is also one of the few to feature Clevenger’s guitar, in a patient, gossamer solo. As on his previous album, The Evening Earth, Clevenger’s jazz guitar is in the background, shaping the music while the spotlight goes to the horns. They’re at the heart of the melodies and they get the bulk of the solos. (OK, yes, the horns outnumber Clevenger 3-to-1, so of course they’d get the bulk of the solos. The point is, Clevenger’s role is more as composer, bandleader, and accompanist.)
The overall mood is soft. If I were to play you the first 30 seconds of each song, you’d get the impression of an album of pretty and mellow songs, and that’s not inaccurate. But the music is set up to let the solos really cook. An example is the opener, “The Irreconcilables.” Here’s a touch of the catchy main theme and of Kasey Knudsen‘s alto sax solo toward the end:
I especially liked the opening of “Sleepwalker’s Anecdote,” where Clevenger’s guitar plays a kind of counter-melody that adds a scrambling feel to the pleasant horn lines. (The polyrhythmic drumming of Jon Arkin helps, too.)
And I should probably note the quirky track “Equinauts,” which adds Jason Levis on marimba for an extra touch of whimsy. You also get to hear Clevenger set his guitar on stun.