Bouncing to life with a shot of passionate grooves in “It is a Miracle to Me” or casually strutting into a blanket of melodies as thick as the autumn fog over London in “It Don’t Matter,” the beats in Project Grand Slam’s East Side Sessions are arguably the most expressive element in the record. Carefully arranged as to provoke as much of a response in listeners as possible without treading overindulgent waters, the rhythm that powers forth East Side Sessions’ most powerful moments is more than enough to make me recommend this disc, but far from its only featured point of interest.
Though the grooves here are a cornerstone of the evocative energy, this isn’t to suggest that the vocals aren’t doing their part to communicate the narrative behind most of the material in East Side Sessions. Marilyn Castillo’s voice is a force to be reckoned with in the emotional “Juliet Dances,” sublimely swift “The Week,” jittery “I Wanna Be Your Girl” and “Hey Jake.” Despite the ebbtide of bassline complexity in “Stockbridge Fanfare” and the equally brooding “I’m Falling Off of the World,” the crooning is the primary focus in these two songs, and more than strong enough to balance out of the sonic depth of the music beautifully.
There’s a very balladic feel to a lot of songs on East Side Sessions, but in the few fire-starters present – such as “The One I’m Not Supposed to See,” “Hey Jake,” “The Week” and “The Pardners” – we get a taste of Project Grand Slam’s live personality captured so elegantly last year in Greetings from Serbia. Ziarra Washington isn’t along for the ride anymore, but in her stead, Castillo has picked up the pace and brought a few more ideas into the melting pot of melodies Robert Miller draws up every time he enters the studio.
It’s true that there aren’t a lot of acts putting as much polish on the minute details in their sound as Project Grand Slam do, and in “I Wanna Be Your Girl,” “Constable on Patrol” and “Tessa,” I think we get to experience their compositional meticulousness at its most unrestrained. Whether it was Miller himself or the band as a whole, you don’t have to be a trained critic to pick up on the ambitious enthusiasm in every one of the twelve songs here, as each of them feels as though it were designed to be a single.
Those who keep up with the jazz underground are more than aware that there are a smorgasbord of great records out this spring worth getting more than a little excited about, but among those that have come across my desk, East Side Sessions is one of the very best. Project Grand Slam aren’t hiding behind poetic enigmas or looking to recycle anyone else’s sound here (including their own). Rather than playing it safe with any aspect of their music, they’re going head-on into the future with a freewheeling attitude, and giving us more than a few reasons to stay tuned to their work through the years ahead.
by Bethany Page