The great and sometimes maddening thing about guitar magician Dean Magraw is that you never know quite what you’re going to get. He can be an inspired acoustic jazz picker, as he was on his debut album, Broken Silence. He can team up with another musician and provide little more than tasteful backup, which he did on his latest release, Raven, with accordionist John Williams. Or, as he displayed without a doubt last night at the Artists' Quarter during the CD-release party for his latest venture, Unseen Rain, Magraw can make an electric guitar do anything he wants—including make it sound like a dolphin.
Dressed plainly in a mottled red bowling shirt and baggy brown pants, Magraw took the stage with Fat Kid Wednesdays drummer JT Bates and bassist Jim Anton, and promptly began playing some of the most technically accomplished, musically adventurous jazz I've heard in quite some time. What Magraw, Bates, and Anton have created is an experimental jazz trio that’s both loose and tight at the same time, with enough discipline to keep the music structured, but plenty of freedom to roam out to the otherworldly edges of the sonic universe and back. Bates is a freakishly talented drummer who, like Magraw, gets an astonishing variety of noises out of a standard drum kit. And bassist Anton always seems to have the perfect answer for Magraw’s playful high-jinks on guitar.
Most of the tunes on Unseen Rain are original compositions. They range in character from the woozy, restrained textures of the title track to "Isabella,"a smooth-jazz tune roughed up just enough to make it interesting, all the way to a truly bizarre thing called "Plum Blossom," which features Magraw on a Fender Stratocaster playing a kind of weird, ghostly electronic slide that ends up sounding like whales, dolphins, and several other creatures that aren’t necessarily of this earth. In between, there are also several trans-cultural gems, such as "Keep the Faith," a composition that fuses Indian and Middle Eastern tonalities with Western jazz and rock in a way that makes you feel as if world peace may actually be possible, as long as no one opens their mouth to interrupt the music.
This is all done in the playful, even traditional, spirit of jazz exploration. To emphasize this fact, Magraw and crew threw in a few numbers by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and John McLaughlin, each of which they stretched and made their own. It’s my sincere hope that Unseen Rain isn’t the only disk Magraw, Bates, and Anton decide to record; there’s too much sonic territory still left for these guys to explore.