Jazz is multidimensional and not always accessible, but when it comes to making the genre palatable through organic melodicism, there aren’t many acts that can compete with the revolving-door, Robert Miller-led band that is Project Grand Slam. In the last five years alone, this act has released some of the most critically-lauded content in the experimental jazz underground outside of the European circuit, and in their latest release – the provocative live album It’s Alive! – they treat their most loyal of fans to a compilation of cuts that will most definitely make parched jazz-loving souls feel a little less thirsty this spring. It’s Alive! isn’t a commercially-clad live record fit with a lot of post-production nonsense, and right now, it’s about as close to a perfect such offering as any band can afford us this April.
“Yeah Yeah,” “No No No,” and the opening salvo in fan-favorite “Redemption Road” each boast quite the atmospheric energy to both their lyrics and the music accompanying them, but it’s important to notice just how focused the players in the tracks are despite all of the sonic chaos transpiring around them. There’s not a single moment here in which Project Grand Slam isn’t in full control over the narrative, and even if it’s an abrasive style of discipline, theirs is a refined songcraft that has both grown and hardened in the last few years alone. “Lament” and “I’m So Glad” back that up, as do “At Midnight,” “The Queen’s Carnival” and, my personal favorite, their cover of Hendrix’s “Fire” (which arguably boasts even more enthusiasm here than it originally did on Are You Experienced?).
There’s a heavy, suffocating feel to the melodies in “Lament,” “The One I’m Not Supposed to See,” and the moving “I Can’t Explain,” but without it being here, I don’t think we would feel the sense of yearning that its presence sonically implies. It’s Alive!, dissimilar to a lot of the other live jazz records you’ve heard in your lifetime, doesn’t focus on one aspect of this act’s sound in favor of streamlining the performances for the sake of venue; on the contrary, this is as multi-layered a sound as we would get in an original studio version (if not a bit more in the case of “Gorilla” and “Aches and Pains”).
I didn’t follow this band as closely as I should have before I had the chance to get acquainted with their latest effort in It’s Alive! this week, but I’ll be staying tuned for more of their work in the future for sure. PGS takes the fragmented sounds of a volatile underground and melds them together to create something jazzy, slightly rock-influenced, and solidly alternative in every way that matters to a critic like myself, and for their efforts, I believe they deserve a major round of applause. It’s Alive! is a statement about modern times in the fusion genre, but even more than this, it’s the culmination of a long and labored cultivation process that has led these players to make some of the best music they ever will under Miller’s distinctive leadership.