On Eric Muhler’s fifth album, The Jury Is Out, the pianist can be heard breaking all the rules, again. “I’ve never followed the correct path toward being a ‘jazz pianist," Muhler states, “There are so many rules about what you can and cannot play, it’s almost stricter than classical piano.”
Muhler’s playing can be compared to both Keith Jarrett and McCoy Tyner. The understated approach of Thelonious Monk comes to mind at times as well. But The Jury Is Out is no one-man show. Muhler has assembled a worthy quartet, featuring bassist Michael Wilcox, drummer Brian Andres, and saxophonist Sheldon Brown.
On this 2008 live recording, the group were very definitely on. Muhler’s piano is a revelation during the title track for instance. He is all over the ivory, much like Tyner sounded in the early 1960s.
Muhler’s music is a mix of the traditional forms of jazz, with more modern elements thrown in. Nowhere is this mix more prominent than in some of the bass playing from Wilcox. During the opening track, “Punkly,” Wilcox’s bass positively pops. For a minute there I thought Bootsy Collins had dropped in.
The sax of Sheldon Brown really stands out in his solo spots. On extended cuts such as “Alexandra Cristina A.M.” he complements the ballad with some extremely tasteful lines. The sound of John Klemmer comes to mind at times on this track. During his solo on the final “Jane At Home,” Brown really lets loose, reminding me a little of the great Wayne Shorter.
One of the more interesting uses of Brown’s sax comes in the early part of “Sand Castles.” Following Muhler’s piano introduction, Brown’s sax comes in, and plays a near perfect quote of Dave Burrell’s keyboard as recorded on “Lower Egypt,” the great Pharoah Sanders track from the 1967 LP Tauhid.
It may be coincidental, but I hear a lot of Sander’s and even John Coltrane’s styles in Brown’s playing, and these elements add a great deal to the whole of the quartet.
Part of the reason for the diversity inherent in The Jury Is Out is rooted in the intriguing life Eric Muhler has lived. As a 60 year old man, he has had some interesting experiences. He was Jimi Hendrix’s chauffer at Monterey Pop, and his grandfather is the famous occultist Aleister Crowley.
In the end though, it all comes down to the music. And, cliché or not, the jury is in on this one. The Jury Is Out is a very good modern-day jazz record, and one well worth hearing.