Sometimes one comes at you straight from left field. You hit that first track and your ears perk up. This is different, this is fresh, this is cool and hot at the same time. Cool because it is jazzy and smart, hot because this group of musicians play their you-know-whats off. Mike MacArthur is not a big name but he has shared the stage with a lot of people who are big in the realms of both straightahead and smooth. He headed straight from college into the sax chair in Maynard Ferguson's band, he toured with Dianne Schurr, and he has shared the stage with a lot of smooth jazz luminaries, especially when they play in Orlando and the Tampa/St. Petersburg area which has become a hotbed for contemporary artists.
Now these artists are jamming with him on his >>>th album, which hopefully will be the one that gains him some much deserved recognition. Feels Like Home was produced by Brian Bromberg and MacArthur is joined by Bromberg, Jeff Lorber, Rick Braun, Jeff Golub, Alex Acuna, Frank “Third” Richardson, Ron Reinhardt and rock/fusion cult hero guitarist Gannin Arnold. There is no way that a lineup like that could create a misstep and here they don't just shine, they shine in ways that you may not have heard before unless you caught them in an intimate live gig where they could cut loose with no concern for the safety zone. This album has no safety zone. It is entertaining, listenable, and catchy but it is not safe. Some of these guys have made a name for themselves in smooth but this is a jazz album. It is not an academic, archival, or intimidating jazz album. It's a jazz album because there is a lot of improvisation and about half of the songs on here are benchmark songs in the history of contemporary jazz, and beyond. Think Joe Zawinul, Horace Silver, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Duke Ellington. Imagine this group of musicians having the time of their lives playing these songs. That's the essence of this album. That and something amazing at this point in time: they did not record their tracks in studios all over the country then send them down to be mixed and produced, they all got in a room and made music face to face.
This is an album that will lead even the most skeptical pop/smooth listener deeper into the world of jazz. The songs MacArthur has chosen are infectious and most were defining moments in the careers of their composers. Zawinul's “Birdland” is instantly familiar. So is Duke Ellington's “In a Sentimental Mood.” Silver's “Filthy McNasty” was a crossover hit in the early 1960's and Miles Davis' oft-covered “Jean Pierre” was one of fusion's defining moments. There are also three MacArthur originals that are straight down the center contemporary with bluesy undercurrents.
If you're going to throw down a jazzed up blues who else would you call but Jeff Golub. “Around The Corner” is bluesy with a side order of raunchy B3 and a Golub solo that should go down as a defining moment in blues-rock guitar shred. MacArthur gives everyone in the band room to play, there are lots of lenghty solo excursions that will leave you in awe. Listen to Braun and Lorber go off in “Filthy McNasty,” or Bromberg's acoustic bass on “Around The Corner.” Ron Reinhardt has a gorgeous piano solo during the anthemic title track. “Third” gets his solo in another tight, energized MacArthur original, “Sidney Street.” In the center of this is MacArthur. The fact that someone of Ferguson's stature would grab this guy right out of college says it all. He's a seasoned musician and a bad*** player capable of delivering jaw dropping licks with impeccable tone or playing a ballad with intensity and restraint.
MacArthur is in front and the album has his name on it but this feels like a band project. Listening to it is like having a front row seat at a jazz club on a night when the band is smokin'. There aren't any electronic enhancements here, it's musicians you know and love playing with and off each other. If you're used to highly processed, digitized, glossy production it may be a sonic shock to you at first but dig in and it will take you over. The vibe and the sound here remind me of Sanborn's early 90's releases when he shifted to a more organic jazzy sound. It's not that it's imitative, it's just that it feels that good, that real, and the level of musicianship is that high. And it proves that adventurous music isn't scary. In fact it's downright fun!