For much of his youth, keyboardist and composer Bryan McAllister wanted to be a human rights advocate at the United Nations. Just before college, the desire to pursue a career as a jazz musician overtook these plans and his life took a sudden detour. In his debut album release, Very Stable Genius, McAllister draws on his passion for social justice and examines our current American cultural landscape through sardonic compositions inspired by the bizarre statements and actions of the man elected to the presidency.
In today’s American political climate, the constant and confused media maelstrom can leave many people wondering whether to laugh or cry. For many, the president is a symptom and symbol of modern racism, misogyny, and income inequality, and yet he is a consistent source of laughably egotistical quotes and preposterous political posturing. On Very Stable Genius, Bryan McAllister enters the fray, attempting to explore the seriousness of these social injustices while using the ridiculousness of the current presidential administration as an entry point into such reflections.
The compositions on Very Stable Genius flirt with the comical and absurd, and employ improvisation to address the emotional complexity of today’s social issues. McAllister’s chosen personnel reflects the album’s dual themes as well. He formed this quintet with the musical voices of each individual player in mind and wrote the music for their specific sounds from the beginning. Levi Saelua’s clear and lyrical alto saxophone sound is front and center for the majority of the compositions, and sometimes backed up or opposed by Brandon Sherman’s expressive, dark trumpet tone. McAllister guides the rhythm section and glues the band together with chunky, rhythmic keyboard interplay, steering his compositions from the center of the band. Miguel Jimenez-Cruz’s powerful drums drive the sound, and bassist Zack Teran creates deep soundscapes on the electric bass that provide a strong foundation for the music. The final track of the album features revered saxophonist Peter Epstein, while Levi Saelua’s bass clarinet provides a third voice for a machine-like, catchy composition that ends the album with an ellipsis rather than a period.
Expressive melodies jump in and out of the churning, driving grooves on Very Stable Genius, and the interplay between horns and rhythm section is expressed in many different ways throughout the album. On the track, “Mueller,” the way the alto saxophone and trumpet find their way to join in the relentless percussive and mechanical agitations is wildly reminiscent of a chase scene. Rhythmic and cyclical keyboard parts lie at the heart of many of McAllister’s compositions, like the keyboard riff at the beginning of “Fake News” that recalls the sound of a breaking news bulletin. After this springboard the bass and drums quickly enter with a dark and slow-moving character, setting the scene for snaking melodic counterpoint from the horns. Conversely, on “State Of The Uniom” McAllister strips the band down to a trio and takes the melodic reigns for a moment to provide a quiet and mournful meditation on the suffering felt by many in the face of hatred.
Bryan McAllister’s focus on concept drives this project and results in a unique approach to composition and arrangement. The themes of duality, the juxtaposition of comedy and grave seriousness, and the assembly of players who’s individual sounds that reflect that contrast, are all carefully sewn together in different compositional shapes throughout the album.
McAllister’s interests in human rights and his decision to employ his voice through musical means make this work all the more interesting. Focusing directly on the man who symbolizes hatred, and doing so through comedy, is an intriguing way to reflect on the state of human rights in modern day America, but McAllister does so with a thoughtful approach and a steady hand. While the titles and compositional humor provide a spark of light-hearted comic relief, the improvisation and interaction of the band reveal much more of the story. This is music reflective of a moment, in all ways: from the comedy surrounding the current administration, to the sobering truths of life in a society where even basic human rights are denied to so many.
Putting this work forward as a debut, Bryan McAllister’sVery Stable Geniusshows the world a unique new voice, both in concept and composition. While McAllister sees this quintet as an ongoing project, he sincerely hopes that he will not be writing music about this president for much longer. Curing a symptom is not the same as curing a disease, and McAllister will have plenty to write about as he tries to inspire reflection and positive change through music. Great music can inspire more questions than it answers. The biggest question we are left with: “What’s next?”
Electric bassist Zach Teran makes his debut as a leader with this quartet recording, featuring melodic, genre-bending original material that draws on his many years of experience as a professional musician anchoring rock, jazz, and electronic music projects in the Reno, NV area. The compositions reflect a spacious sonic palate, with both wide-ranging grooves and timbres uncharacteristic of a small group with no guitarist or keyboardist. Teran accomplishes this by skillfully incorporating electronic effects in the middle and treble registers on a few tracks, complementing his precise touch on the electric bass.
Teran is also supported by Miguel Jimenez-Cruz’s versatile drumming throughout, although this is sometimes obscured by being low in the mix. Tenor saxophonist Chris Gillette and trumpeter Brandon Sherman navigate this expansive musical territory admirably, giving the album its timbral through-line as well as contributing inspired improvised solos when called upon to do so.
The writing takes a plaintive, melodic turn midway through the album with “Standing Rock” and “How Our Hearts Were,” expanding the emotional range beyond the more assertive opening tracks. The writing loses a bit of focus after the carefully mixed interlude “Flatiron 2,” although the improvisers fill the space well. Despite this, the album leaves a sense of having traversed an expansive territory, not unlike the long drives across the American West that many Nevadans make on a regular basis.
By JOHN SHAND
As Orenda Records' catalogue expands, so does both the scope of its music and the significance of the LA-based label. This, the debut album by bassist/composer Zack Teran, interweaves jazzy threads with streams of electronica, bursts of rock and more. Groove and drama are often uneasy bedfellows, the one tending to undermine the other, but not in Teran's work, the drama facet culminating in a soaring piece called The Keyhole. This is music always on the move to new destinations via an improbable collection of reference points. With Teran are trumpeter Brandon Sherman (who sometimes reminds me of the late Kenny Wheeler), Chris Gillette's incandescent tenor saxophone playing and Miguel Jimenez-Cruz's crisp drumming.
When this album gets catchy, there’s really no resisting it. Portalis will reel you in, hook line and sinker. But the moment of capture is a temporary state of being. It’s not long before Zack Teran and his quartet let go and start the process all over again.
What really gets me about this album is how its thoughts seem very scattered and that it could follow any direction at any time, and yet right when it appears another random change is in the works, an anthemic passage bursts from behind the clouds like a bold ray of sunlight, making everything it touches warm and happy and alive. It rarely manifests the same way twice. That randomness is half the reason for all the fun.
It’s in how “Along the Mountains in the Sky” skitters about dispensing little fragments of melody and then suddenly swells up for bold, thick statements of purpose. And there’s how sometimes Teran just leads right out with it. “Chasm” shows its true face right from the beginning and nothing about the rest of the tune changes that first impression, even as it goes about deviating from it in any number of ways. No different on “Meditation Space,” but where the previous track had a punchy, foot-tapping attitude, this time around the melody is treated as if it were used to paint a sky full of clouds lit up in sunset colors. Rhythmically, each of the album’s tracks fall into one of two categories: punchy attitude or a contented sigh. The result is that they feed off each other’s energy, where the contrast between the two tones makes each resonate that much stronger by way of comparison. And when viewed in the context of melodies in a transitory state, the constancy of the tempo causes the changes to stand out with distinction.
Your album personnel: Zack Teran (electric & acoustic bass, electronics, vocals), Chris Gillette (tenor saxophone), Brandon Sherman (trumpet) and Miguel Jimenez-Cruz(drums).
By Brad Bynum
“Along the Mountains in the Sky,” the first song on Portalis, the new album by Reno bassist Zack Teran, begins with a moody electronic soundscape, punctuated by understated saxophone and trumpet, like something from a sci-fi noir movie. Then the piece opens up into a couple of big melodic themes before settling into a jazz fusion groove that will appeal to fans of the Chicago post-rock band Tortoise. After a terrific trumpet solo, the sax returns alongside what sounds like a dramatic rock guitar solo but is actually played on bass. The melodic themes return briefly, and then the piece ends with a syncopated, ska-like rhythm that slowly fades out.
The song covers a lot of musical ground. So do the album’s other nine tracks. And covering a lot of ground was an inspiration for the album.
“A lot of the songs were written based on outdoorsy travels that I’ve done—hikes in the mountains,” Teran said during a recent interview.
Sometimes the inspiration would take the form a melody that would occur to him while on the hike, but often the process would just include him sitting with his instrument and writing music while reflecting back on his outdoor adventures.
“I don’t know if meditating is that right word—just thinking about that experience. … The space that that moment puts you in for writing music,” he said.
Teran was born in Mexico, grew up in Reno, and graduated from Reno High School and the jazz program at the University of Nevada, Reno. He’s played in local rock bands, like the Stops and Frendo, and in a wide variety of jazz gigs. He was a touring member of the world music group Sol Jibe, and he’s been a member of the literary indie act the Novelists for a decade. In that band, he learned two things: recording techniques, which helped him engineer Portalis, and improving his singing.
Most of Portalis was recorded in one day with help from Anna Santoro, using equipment borrowed from the Novelists. He wrote most of the music beforehand, but included solo sections for each of the players to improvise.
“I try to leave the music open enough so that the musicians who are playing it can also have some input and some say,” he said.
The players include tenor saxophonist Chris Gillette and trumpeter Brandon Sherman, both of whom Teran met through UNR.
“What’s great about their two styles is—to my ear, they blend really well, but they’re improvisational styles are completely different,” Teran said. “Chris—he can just shred on the saxophone, which is completely awesome. Brandon also can do that, but he’s much more colorful. He can play around with strange notes or colors on the trumpet.”
And the drummer on the session was prolific local player Miguel Jimenez-Cruz.
“He and I play all musics together—blues, jazz, funk,” Teran said. “He just started playing with the Novelists.”
Teran’s goal for the album was to write music with the same clarity of mind that comes after a long hike.
“I equate music to … going hiking and spending time outdoors,” he said. “You get this sense of connection to things that are happening around you that maybe are obscured by modern lifestyle. I wanted the music to also be a portal for listeners to either be introspective, or think about things in a different way, or just focus on music, or be meditative and feel connected to something else that they don’t usually feel connected to. I think music does that for people.”