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CD REVIEW: The Former Champions - Now With Atomic Energy!
By Alex Jasperse - 05/21/2007 - 11:37 AM EDT

Artist: Band: The Former Champions
Album: Now With Atomic Energy! [2007]
Label: Courthouse Records
Genre: Jazz, Hard Bop, Post-Bop
Production/Musicianship Grade: 9.5/10
Songwriting Skills: 9.5/10
Performance Skill: 9/10
CD Review:

Sensuous, funky grooves flowing in and out of free-form improvised sections, a sense of freedom within structure and a passion for making music. Overriding feelings of joy and discovery, a melding of talented musical personalities. Curious? Yeah, then you’re ready to see what atomic energy does to music…

Within the span of 45 minutes, The Former Champions travel through several decades of sounds familiar to jazz, but with a delightful twist. Flowing through the spaces of jazz, pop, funk and soul, this album is a pulse-driven recording that’s made up of alternating two and three-way conversational interactions. Although saxophonist Mathew Zavitz leads much of the way, the sharply-oiled machine of Matt Walton (guitars), David Watkinson (bass) and Geoff Bakel (drums) work in combination to release electrified currents of hard bop grooves that are reminiscent of works from the 1960s and the experimentalism of the 21st century.

Recording all pieces live off the floor, the quartet’s contemporary and laid-back pieces fuse together stylistic mannerisms similar to groups like Medeski, Martin & Wood, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. Zavitz’s playing at points takes on a distinctly Charlie Parker-meets-Michael Brecker tone – which can only hint at the size of the bag of licks he can choose from – and combined with the unique combination of personalities in the group, every phrase, melody and groove is drenched in new meanings. Their forward-looking compositions breathe an unpredictability that makes nothing feel calculated or restrained. It’s simply some damn fine playing.  

Zavitz’s ability to express himself on sax with a fluid charm that doesn’t go astray into the territory of being ‘too’ smooth, speaks volumes like his tonal control in pieces like “A Land Whose Sun is Coloured Differently Than Ours.” Merging his voice with the guitar and bass, the rapid-fire sax riffs snarl before attacking with several scattered descending runs. Walton’s distorted guitar leads warn from afar – hinting at what’s to come – but doesn’t let on what Zavitz is capable of. Don’t think that because the tempo eases up, the piano is there to save the day – no – instead it tells everyone to take a step back to allow Zavitz to fill the entire sonic landscape and bite with a free jazz viciousness. The effect can only be described as one-man orchestration.

Where you begin to hear the musical dialogue in its fullest is in tracks like “Face Plant.” There’s enough room for everyone to express themselves, allowing each to proceed with confidence, and prepared to offer a fresh phrase or solid accompaniment. One of the highlights (aside from Zavitz’s and Walton’s playing) is Bakel’s ease behind the drum kit. At points he’s a crafter of atmosphere, with delicate passages injecting a sense of coolness. At others, his dexterous and well-placed fills add playfulness to tracks like “Moments Between Arcs” and “Mozongo.” Understated most of the time, the only missing element from this musical dialogue is the bass. Partly due to volume level issues and partly due to playing it too safe, Watkinson seems to be more focused on building the framework than anything else.

The Former Champions’s debut is a rare thing in music: Now with Atomic Energy! can be put on in the background, but not lose any of its value. Alternatively it can become a headphone album that’s also suited to intense listening. Tracks like “Two Tickets” and “Oiggiepra” are mid-tempo grooves that aren’t invasive, filling the room with well-traveled and playful musical tales. But as soon as you pop on a pair of headphones, the pieces transform into a cinematic experience that’s chalked full of stories that aren’t meant for the coffee table crowd. And if you really want to make some jaws drop, let them know that Zavitz is only seventeen. Yeah, that’s right…

Now with Atomic Energy! could be criticized for being a lightweight production that’s heavier on lyricism than rhythmic and harmonic complexity, but complaining that the music is not challenging enough misses the point at the end of the day. This is simply a straightforward album of great jazz, that’s definitely a must have for both the casual listener and the jazz aficionado. The Former Champions are highly recommended, and the blast they unleash with Now With Atomic Energy! is well worth the fallout.

The Verdict:

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