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Music Review: Bob Shimizu – First and Monroe

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According to the bio on his website, after a hiatus of some years, composer/jazz guitarist Bob Shimizu decided to return to music in 2008. He had studied composition and performance at the University of Maryland, and upon graduation was one of the founders of a locally successful Washington DC avant garde jazz band, Come Out Swinging. Now based in Arizona (and after a well received self produced album with a newly formed band Signal Strength), Shimizu is out with a brand new album of original material, First and Monroe, produced by Clarke Rigsby and Todd Chuba. Together the three men, working with a stellar group of musicians, came up with a mellow-sounding contemporary jazz sound that focuses on sweet melodies and accessible improvisation. One thing First and Monroe is not is avant garde; this is music that is easy to listen to.

Interviewed on AM Arizona, Shimizu described how he works as a composer, saying he begins with the melody. Once he has that he builds on it, often going on and on to great length. He credited Rigsby and Chuba with helping him edit the songs, cut out some of the excess and keep focus on the melody. Pushed by the interviewers to talk about his perceived perfectionism, he was clear that he never really considers his work perfect, although he is always striving for it. This is true for his playing as well. He is always practicing to find that perfect groove. He compares it to polishing granite with a wet rag to make it shine. You keep polishing until you wear out the rag, and then you get a new rag. Really though it is the striving that is important; it is the striving that gives the music life. Too often perfection is merely mechanical; it lacks heart. Shimizu’s music may be a little too tame for those who are into the more experimental modern jazz scene, but it is never simply mechanical; it never lacks heart.

The eleven tracks on the album are a nice mix of what his web site calls “jazz dynamics meeting pop sensibilities.” “Her Gentle Touch in Moonlight,” the opening song, sets the tone. Shimizu’s minimalist approach to the melody on the guitar makes way for some nice solo work for Matt Williams on the vibes. Some of the best work on the album features Shimizu working with one or another of the band members. The funky bluesy “Padrone” has some great duet interaction between the alto sax of EricMarienthal and Shimizu’s guitar, not to mention some nice work by Joey De Francesco on the organ. De Francesco and Shimizu work together again with drummer Todd Chuba on a swinging trio version of the album’s title song. In the background you can hear the audience reaction to the piece, which was recorded live, although the CD mysteriously doesn’t give any information about where and when.

“Above the Clouds” has the guitarist working with Dominick Farinnaci on the flugelhorn on a mellow samba with some orchestral highlighting in the back ground. “Easy to be With” is another Latin-American number, this time featuring Marienthal on the soprano sax. “Flying Home,” not to be confused with the Lionel Hampton’s signature tune,offers Shimizu an opportunity for some nice solo work. The songs on the album are a delightful reminder of what traditional jazz is all about. And if you get a tune like “Yavapai Lullaby,” which seems to have little to do with Indians and doesn’t much sound like a lullaby, it is only the title that is confusing; the tune itself is comfortably traditional, with David Garfield joining Shimizu on the keys with a joy that is unlikely to put anyone to sleep.

Bob Shimizu may not be a household name, but he has put out an album that ought to get him some more attention with fans of smooth jazz. Listen to some of the tracks on First and Monroe and you’re likely to get hooked. The man writes melodies that sing, and he plays them with heart.

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About Jack Goodstein