Kush review by S. Victor Aaron, Something Else

A moody, unforced album rich in nuances, Kush (Songlines, November 4, 2016) is the fourth from the progressive-minded guitarist, composer and sometimes-leader Ryan Blotnick. After a decade in the Big Apple,Blotnick recently returned back to native Maine and set out to not only separate physically from the bustle and white-hot intensity of the NYC jazz scene but also make the break musically as well. A collection of eight, spacious Blotnick compositions gently swayed by African-derived rhythms resulted.

Blotnick hadn’t offered up an ensemble album since Everything Forgets and that was back in ’09. But in order to get to Kush, a self-released guitar-only Solo, Volume 1 from 2013 was probably a necessary step. At the time we surmised that with this particular record “we get a portrait of a jazz guitarist learning to be a genre-less guitarist that follows his muse to wherever it leads him. Not setting up those fences made the music far less predictable and thus, far more interesting.” That genre ambivalence and openness is ever present here, too, this time supported by Scott Colberg (bass), RJ Miller and Blotnick’s long time mentor and bandleader, saxophonist Michael Blake.

Songs aren’t so much performed as they are flowing forth. “Kush” begins with a haze of abstractness, settling into a relaxed, 17/8 groove meted out from hand-beaten drums; both Blake and Blotnick set off on explorative solos. Africanized drum ‘n bass rhythms prevails on “DX7” and Blotnick shows off a bit of his rhythmic acumen from being the longtime rhythm guitarist in Akoya Afrobeat and then spools out a solo that’s more rock oriented than he’s ever previously put on his records, and Blake recalls the tenor sax fury and emotion of Pharoah Sanders. And it’s damn near impossible to listen to “Lunenburg” — so Americana with Blotnick’s shimmering guitar and the addition of Jonny Lam’s pedal steel guitar — and not think of Bill Frisell. It would rank as one of Fris’ better songs, too (for the record, Blotnick cites another guitarist, Jacob Bro, as his primary influence for this song). The guitar settles into a gentle sweetness, enjoyable for its sparkling resonance alone.

Blotnick’s guitar on “May Day” is like funk in slo-mo and Miller’s drums come out from the dark and takes its place near the front when Blake takes his turn. “Churchy” isn’t gospel, but it’s soothing like Sunday morning, deceptively so as the chord progression doesn’t go in a straight line and Blake’s sax is soulful and serene.

Following a couple of tempered, purposeful numbers played in 3/4 time (“Delaware”, “And Bright Snow”), “Spring” ends the proceedings with a gorgeous jazz ballad, much in the way Thelonious Monk did ballads. And more than the other seven tracks, it’s played in the jazz tradition as well, keyed by Blake’s canorous soprano sax.

The mastery of space and tone within an improvisational setting is an art few have truly mastered; with Kush, Ryan Blotnick has shown himself to be among such rare masters.

-S. Victor Aaron, Something Else Reviews