By Jeff Cebulski
One of the top stories to emerge in 2022 was the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs that can easily fool humans (at least in the West) into thinking a poem, song, or essay manufactured in the machine was the product of a natural human mind, thus sending out an alarm about the possibilities ahead. All sorts of artists, even jazz composers, have been anticipating this growing paranoia. The top jazz album of 2021 in the minds of many critics was Maria Schneider’s Data Lords, an expansive musing about the breach in the relationship between humans and nature caused by our techno obsessions.
A recent contribution to this postmodern theme is Time to Mind the Mystics, the latest album composed by guitarist and programmer Dan Bruce, a Chicago-area native and educator who now operates from the greater Cleveland, Ohio area.
Bruce has always intrigued this reviewer with his sophisticated compositional skills, and this collection maintains that intrigue, involving a number of styles that are meant to help convey his own concerns about a growing “embrace of technological innovation” coming at “the sacrifice of generational knowledge and ancient wisdom” (liner notes).
It’s not that Bruce eschews technology, per se. His music includes the use of synthesizer and Ableton live programming, which certainly brighten the sound palate. The challenge is to compose music that creates tones and moods representing his concerns and feelings.
Bruce is a talented player capable of expressing himself in various emotional contexts, switching effortlessly between an electric, fusion-laced expression and the softer, more subtly emotional nylon string voice. Behind him are an impressive gathering of accompanying musicians who drive these compositions. The collective interplay sometimes reminds me what Dave Holland accomplished with his quintet in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
The opener’s title, “Time to Mind the Mystics,” sounds like an appeal to return to the ancients, but it’s not that narrow a view. Bruce wants to celebrate human achievement so long as it respects human life in the process, as represented by visionaries and sages. Bruce’s electric combines with other items such as ring modulator, synthesizer, and forms of distortion to create something more ethereal in tone, with a Return to Forever vibe. The acoustic additions of horns and piano put the proceedings into a synergistic balance that Bruce maintains throughout the album.
“Blueprint,” which follows, is predictably quieter and pensive, a deft juxtaposition of light and dark. In the same way timeless wisdom must coexist with persistent technological advancement, forces of good and evil also coexist. Here the aforementioned interplay really shines: bassist Aidan Plank and pianist Theron Brown supply the “dark” (with nice support from drummer Anthony Taddeo) while vibraphonist Will Wedmedyk and soprano saxophonist Brad Wagner battle the tension with the higher notes.
“Insignificance (A Love Song)” refers to our place in the universe, at once both profound and in the larger universal picture hardly mattering. Bruce’s spirited acoustic playing, with a tinge of Latin and great partnership with Plank, dances with apparent joy in light of the tiny place we inhabit, cosmos-wise.
“Slant” shifts to the future, beginning with Chris Coles’ vocoder “consulting” a person who is seeking stronger human connection, an irony not lost to those who sense AI will replace mankind eventually in matters of wisdom. Caleb Smith’s trombone solo is perhaps the human in the conversation—the acoustic response to the techno sage. Bruce brings it all together with a mellifluent solo.
“The Walk” is meant to represent what it implies: a walk Bruce took to alleviate some misery following physical therapy. His stride at the time was irregular, and this composition symbolizes the varying moods and paces. It begins on the funky side, interrupted by a short peaceful moment, then is replaced with a cacophony of effects, led by some dissonant wailing from Coles and Wagner.
“You vs. You (For Bill Frisell)” is, in Bruce’s words, about overthinking, “being in your own way.” While we have to guess to what extent Frisell identifies with this idea, Bruce is open about it, as demonstrated by the meandering arrangement of Brown’s vocoder, Wedmedyk’s vibes, and Bruce’s programmed guitar, which is sandwiched by a chamber horn chorus.
“Not Knowing” starts with a weaving trombone intro that leads to a groove-laden passage suggesting a search for what one does not yet know, a statement of humility in this information-glutted age. The groove is interrupted—a Bruce trend—by another chamber moment, before proceeding onward.
The album ends, not quite ironically, with a blues, in this case the “Moth/Flame Blues.” Plank’s acoustic bass sets a solid foundation as Wedmedyk’s vibes, Wagner’s soprano, and Brown’s swinging keys suggest a positive, hopeful view as we move forward into the techno future.
Throughout this album, Bruce is content to let his band and music shine—kudos to Taddeo on drums—while he provides a tasty solo here and stalwart backup there, being content as an equal member in the midst of interpretation and improvisation.
Some thought Schneider’s album was too cerebral, not-jazz-enough for their liking (though hearing the music live at Newport indicated the opposite). I would suggest to those decliners to check out Bruce’s new collection to get their necessary jazz vibrations. The deft yin-yang of electric-acoustic, the moody ups-and-downs, the in-out arrangements and the prescient point-of-view should please the most active listener.
www.danbrucemusic.com | Shifting Paradigm Records, 2021.
Dan Bruce—electric and nylon string guitars, Ableton live programming
Chris Coles—alto and tenor saxophone, vocoder
Brad Wagner—soprano and tenor saxophone, bass clarinet
Theron Brown—piano, Fender Rhodes, melodica
Aiden Park—acoustic and electric bass
Anthony Taddeo—drums, percussion
Joel Negus—synthesizers (on “Mystics” and “Slant”)