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Music Review: Cliff Colon – Contraband

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One of the greatest things about the world of jazz is that there are no rules. Source material can come from anywhere, the performers can be as eclectic and out-and-out wacky as they please, and the instruments can be forced into all sorts of bizarre corners at will.

Cliff Colon certainly understands that jazz music needn’t be boring and needn’t play by any set of standards or rules. With his debut release as a leader, this unconventional and incessantly compelling saxophonist takes on the 8-bit world of Contra. Yes, that Contra.

A quick glance at Colon’s MySpace page or a brief chat with the man reveals an inner nerd that many musicians would shy away from. But it is his candor and his humor that truly makes his music compelling, as lesser performers wouldn’t have taken such a giant risk. And Contraband is perilous, that’s for damn sure, but it’s also a great piece of music.

Call it “geek jazz.”

Colon has assembled a terrific group, adding a strong sense of musicality to the proceedings. J. Charles (alto sax), Frank Seeberger (guitar), Eric Verlinde (Rhodes piano and Hammond organ), Chuck Kistler (bass), and D’Vonne Lewis (drums) round out the collective.

Contraband finds Colon paying homage to the popular music of his youth in the form of video game soundtracks. Contra, the 1980’s run & gun masterpiece, featured compositions by Kyouhei Sada and Hidenori Maezawa from the Konami Corporation. It might be safe to say that the pair never thought their 8-bit tweet-and-twirl soundtrack would ever be attempted with a full jazz ensemble.

The setup here is unique, as Colon and Co. actually roll out the soundtrack in sequential order, playing the various level or stage themes in the order they appeared in the game. The melodies and harmonies are relatively the same, but Colon has left understandable space for improv and other goodies.

After the familiar “Intro,” Contraband gets popping with “Jungle.” One doesn’t have to strain too hard to imagine controlling Bill Rizer or his partner Lance Bean through the green 8-bit trees. The track works as a nice introduction to the players, as Colon, Charles, Verlinde, and Kistler are all given moments in the spotlight.

“Base” has a bit of a samba feel and is highlighted by some nice work on the Rhodes from Verlinde. “The Boss” puts Colon in the middle of the fray as he utilizes his weapon proficiently in a brightly-paced tenor solo. And “Waterfall” allows for some experimentation and a nice alto solo from Charles.

“Snow Field” feels hazardous and is led by a Spanish-themed guitar from Verlinde. The rolling nearly-ten-minute tune is slow to unfold and feels cautious, lending a sense of tension to the music. And “Energy Zone” breaks open with a swinging, bouncing sense. “Alien Lair” is a tight and brave composition that lends plenty of its value to the band’s taut delivery.

“End Credits” finally allows for a chill-out moment. The track makes good use of Verlinde’s keys and feels at home in any jazz club on earth.

Contraband could have easily been tossed aside as a gimmicky recording, but the quality of the arrangements and the talent of Colon’s outfit turns the Konami video game soundtrack into a piece that really, really works. It is strong, satisfying music with flavour, edge, and tension. Whether Red Falcon will like it is, of course, another story altogether…

Contraband can be purchased via Cliff Colon's website

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