Rhythms and flavors of Latin jazz hover over much of This is Nate Najar, the gorgeous new album from the classical-guitar-playing jazz virtuoso. Paired with the sensitivity and skill of trumpeter James Suggs over the tight rhythm section of John Lamb (bass) and Matt Home (drums), Najar starts the set with the first of three Chick Corea tunes, the well-known “500 Miles High,” in a version shot with hot-sauce tang.
But the guitarist’s sensibility is much broader than that. “Sidewalks of New York” is a happy jump-bluesy excursion – and it’s followed, remarkably, by a solo guitar transcription of Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor (Op. 28 No. 4). Harmonically, Najar plays the Chopin straight, yet something not quite definable, perhaps in his fingering style or his rhythmic elasticity, or perhaps simply his use of right-hand classical technique to play jazz, suggests the affinities between the classic romantic repertoire and the soulful (and Brazilian) sides of jazz. He then further thickens the plot with Jobim’s “Insensatez,” whose melody, I now notice, is reminiscent of the Chopin.
Suggs shows off his fluid melodicizing on a snappy “Chick’s Tune.” The track also features one of the album’s marvelous solos by Najar, whose unamplified guitar is the combo’s raison d’être after all. Jazz played on a classical guitar remains relatively uncommon. But rather than trying to ape the sounds and styles many guitarists draw from their Gibson Les Pauls, Najar has developed astounding techniques all his own. These make this album sparkle among the raft of skillfully played but sometimes cookie-cutter jazz releases that crowd today’s virtual shelves.
Suggs offers sweet tones on a ballad of his own breathily titled “But Oh, What Love!” while Najar’s own “What Would Ola Mae Do?,” an engaging poppy number, gives the guitarist space to stretch out and display his magnificent musicality. Suggs shines again with a smoky muted solo on a warm, bluesy take on the standard “Centerpiece,” with Najar offering an entire verse of rasgueado repeated strumming. The guitarist shows his subtle sensibility on an understated yet thrilling sequence of solo verses in Jobim’s “O Morro Não Tem Vez (Favela),” providing a clinic in the dynamic range of the humble classical guitar.
A new jazz palette for the nylon-string guitar is due, and on the strength of this album it’s clear Nate Najar is an avatar for just that.