If not for the fact I was browsing in Bandcamp’s “Jazz” section, I probably wouldn’t have approached Wandering Monster expecting an intricate, infectious style of jazz fusion. At first glance, the album cover and name looked like it belonged somewhere under the “experimental electronic” umbrella. Often times, jazz artists represent their music with their own likeness, which is both logical and not particularly unique or interesting. But with Wandering Monster, the quintet chose an overarching name with purpose, meant to represent the “inner monsters we can all possess at some point in our lives.” It’s this context that ultimately helped shape my experience with Wandering Monster, an album comprised of gorgeously composed and masterfully performed contemporary jazz.
Led by composer and bassist Sam Quintana, the quintet brings forth a youthful, vibrant take on jazz fusion with a distinctly modern flair. Most notably, each of the five members proves invaluable throughout each of the album’s six tracks. Whenever they’re playing, each member feels truly integral to the success of the individual track and overarching narrative of the album. In many ways, the quintet’s strong rhythmic and melodic tendencies call to mind the modern clashes of prog fusion and math rock, particularly the work of bands like Monobody and The Physics House Band. But at the end of the day, Wandering Monster is jazz album through and through, and it’s an absolutely phenomenal one at that.
Right out of the gate, the quintet provides a perfect example of this with phenomenal lead single “Samsara.” The group strikes an enticing middle ground between syncopation and complimentary performances, with each player bolstering a central melody with their own distinct but relevant sequences. This central melody is polished and rife with emotion, revolving around a beautiful refrain that somehow feels contemplative, crestfallen and celebratory in equal measures. The track’s shifting moods are unraveled by the slow and masterful introductions and interplay of each player. Quintana and drummer Tom Higham open the proceedings with an alluring rhythm accented by pianist Aleks Podraza, followed by a punchy dual entrance from both saxophonist Ben Powling and guitarist Calvin Travers. As the track progresses, each player maintains the composition’s vast and encompassing mood while trading off chances to land their bown instrumental jabs.
Immediately after, “The Rush Begins” offers a performance fitting for its name, with a rhythm-heavy, bop-oriented dose of fusion more so on the jazz-rock end of the spectrum. Powling and Podraza combine for a fierce hook to open the track, and Higham boosts an equally energetic midsection with some brash percussion. Finally, Podraza steals the show with one of the best piano solos I’ve heard in some time, bordering on being a free jazz outburst without ever feeling out of control.
From there, Wandering Monster takes a bit of a moodier, softer tone. “Sweetheart” is a sultry slow jam highlighted by some passionate guitar licks from Travers , while Powling really unleahses the power of his tenor on tracks like “Emöke” and especially “Tuco.” Finally, “Happy Place” brings the album full circle with a more subdued, looser sensation than the melody defining “Samsara.” Podraza breaks out the organ, and the rest of his bandmates deliver and equally soulful sendoff, like smoke dissipating from the night’s last cigarette.
Throughout all these musical moods, Wandering Monster delivers from both a compositional and performative standpoint. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a jazz album that executes at every level quite like this; the band never sacrifices an ounce of emotion, technicality or writing to improve any of these other elements. Through it all, there’s an addictive rhythmic quality and emphasis on interplay and syncopation that defines the band’s style, making for a distinctly modern, fresh take on fusion fundamentals. It may be early, but Wandering Monster is currently holding my top spot for the best jazz album of the year by a wide margin. Upon repeat listens, I only anticipate that opinion will grow stronger.
Wandering Monster is available now via Ubuntu Music.