Shannon West Reviews “Can’t Let Go”

Sometimes one comes straight from left field and out of the blue. Who is Tony Vattimo? A CD arrives in the mail with minimal packaging, no cover art, and a very short, concise press release that quotes a big name smooth jazz radio guy saying you should “sit back and relax.” Onto the throwaway stack it goes with all the other relaxing background music. Then someone I know and trust mentioned that he liked it. I put it on to play while I did some housework and…WOW. This is not relaxing background music, this is not formula smooth jazz. As a matter of fact the most obvious influence that comes to mind is Russell Ferrante of the Yellowjackets, with some Joe Sample and Spyro Gyra on the side. Those are influences, though, this music is not imitative. This is original music that never falls back on formula or cliche. Plus, Vattimo has managed to wrap a lot of straightahead and progressive elements into an extremely listenable package. The instrumentation is mostly acoustic, it has a live sound throughout, and there is quite a bit of improvisation – all elements that were never included in the smooth jazz formula. This music makes a strong case for expanding the horizons of the genre to bring them back in. It is melodic and warm, the transitions between solos and structured parts are seamless, and the overall sound is so fresh and expansive that it makes technology driven, loop-filled studio projects sound flat out sterile.

OK. Who is Tony Vattimo? He’s a keyboard player from the Philadelphia area who has been gigging locally for years playing in clubs and playing in church. He’s played every kind of jazz – traditional, smooth, fusion, urban, all of it. He mostly plays acoustic piano but he never falls into that noodly, lite-sy “tickling the ivories” sound that has become so popular with smooth jazz piano players. He doesn’t lightly brush the keys and throw little grace notes into every riff. He plays powerfully when the song calls for it and with elegant nuance when the song calls for that.

It’s easy to listen to but it is far from Easy Listening. It is melodic, engaging, and there is a sense of warmth throughout. The songwriting is never predictable either. Listen to “Farewell,” the second track. It starts with this beautiful melody line then the sax comes in and it takes an early Spyro-Gyra turn, then the keyboard comes back to the forefront and the melody takes a fascinating twist as the song wraps up. “Undertow” is my favorite song on the CD. It sounds slightly Benoit-ish in the beginning then moves into an ensemble passage with Vattimo counterpointing a sax line while a live drummer (yes!) builds momentum with the backbeat. “Na Pali Coast” is energized and anthemic, the point where a jazzy sax solo segues into a rock oriented electric guitar solo will stop you in your tracks. Power chords and a funky wah-wah kick in the next song “To New York,” the project’s most funk-driven track. Then “Don’t Look Back” meshes romanticism with driving percussion. All these songs flow together but none of them sound alike. That is a tribute to Vattimo’s skills as a songwriter and arranger and to a stellar group of musicians who are popular regionally but not part of the smooth jazz session heavy hitters pack. That may be why there is so much originality here – these guys haven’t been moving in the circles that serve up radio-friendly tracks like clockwork so they aren’t afraid to open up and play.

There is something both freeing and fresh about this music. It reminds me of the wonderful albums that came out in the early 90′s when there was so much excitement about the music and it was still called contemporary jazz. That is what Can’t Let Go is – it’s not a throwback, though, it’s a revival. It is complex but never cluttered and has just enough smooth jazz elements to make it a prefect first step onto a jazzier path for fans coming in from the pop and R&B side. Listening to it is like sitting on the couch after you’ve done a serious bout of cleaning and decluttering – it’s open, spacious, breathtaking and, most importantly, it just makes you feel good!

- Shannon West

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