REVIEWS: Everlasting

Paul Renz Quintet CD-Release Party

It was my great pleasure to write liner notes for electric bassist, educator and composer extraordinaire Paul Renz on his second album and first CD, the disarmingly good Everlasting. Equally adept on guitar, and just as liable to compose symphonic pieces as hard bop grooves, new dad Renz lets some of the Twin Cities’ finest improvisers shine on Everlasting, neatly balancing taut and tuneful charts with spontaneous solos. Though tonight’s cast of characters is significantly different from that heard on the CD, the mood should be celebratory, the playing all-pro and the echoes of old Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside sessions cheerfully abundant. So party! 8 p.m. Dakota Bar & Grill, Bandana Square, 1021 E. Bandana Blvd., St. Paul.

-City Pages, Tom Surowicz, April 1996

“Everlasting” Walker Records 9601

Renz the composer-performer places full faith in his compositions, foregoing the safer and more usual practice of including at least one standard, or piece by Monk or the like, to mollify marketers and other air-play-friendly types.

Renz comes close to the usual practice, though, with “Well You Couldn’t,” a smoothed out version of Monk’s piece. Here as elsewhere the Minneapolis-based electric bassist and guitarist rearranges the building blocks of the modern mainstream into something comfortably his own. He’s not satisfied with writing something that sounds like something else; instead he imbues each work with personal nuances. The result is a solid date that requires the listener to concentrate to appreciate its distinctiveness.

Renz especially likes contrasting styles, as evident on “Latin in Deed,” “Latch On,” and “Fanfare for Jan.” The latter is a clever mix of Copland and calypso with nursery rhyme turns. Sounds complex, yet the performance is smooth with each improviser working within the piece’s framework. True as well, here and elsewhere, the musicians seem to be careful, maybe overly so, about sticking with the composition’s conception. At any rate, no one here really stands out, save perhaps saxophonist Keni Holmen, who displays his full, soulful vision on “Didn’t You Know,” a Renz nod to the 1950s Blue Note sound. Renz also gets solid performances from his rhythm section. His electric bass is the catalyst here, though he has recorded as a guitarist, I suspect he focuses on bass on this date to allow himself more control over the interpretation of his pieces. On “Cabin in the Rain” he sets forth strong counter melodies under both the doleful head and the blowing (trumpeter Pemberton seems very at home in this cabin during his muted spot). Renz’s playing displays the mix of creativity and craftsmanship that is so evident on the whole date.

-David Dupont, Cadence Magazine, December 1996

“Everlasting” Liner Notes

Paul Renz has been an all-star student, mastering guitar, bass and composition. A scholarship boy on the National Dean’s List. Summa cum laude at Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. “Who’s Who Among Students at American Universities and Colleges 1984-1985.”

Paul Renz has also been an all-star teacher. Tutor of ear training, composition, harmony, theory and arranging at Berklee. Then a high school gifted students teacher in Virginia. Summer camp music director in Maine. And a community college prof back in Virginia. Presently Renz is a Minnesotan, working at both the MacPhail Center for the Arts and the West Bank School of Music.

That’s a lot of time spent in classrooms. Yet the good news is that there’s nothing remotely academic about Renz’s music. Nothing dryly theoretical or by-the-book predictable whatsoever. Paul Renz’s music is a kick! It’s a fresh, breathing, surprising, tune-filled, character-to-spare personal amalgam of so much that’s so fine about modern mainstream jazz. Paul Renz’s sounds are certainly well-schooled, but never dry or fuddy. Renz has had some great teachers, including composer, arranger, pianist and “Lydiot,” George Russell-the post-bop and big band living legend. And ECM guitar star Mick Goodrick. Not to mention Berklee’s venerable Herb Pomeroy. He does all those cats proud on Everlasting.

The CD certainly isn’t a one-man show. Bassist Renz is in great Land O’Lakes company. There’s trumpeter Jon Pemberton, of Size Six, the Skatet and his own Pembertones, making a belated CD debut. Plus longtime Guthrie Theater musician, Keni Holmen, Cedar Ave. Big Band saxophonist Dave Brattain, TC Jazz Cartel guitarist extraordinaire “Wally” Walstad, fellow Berklee grad and trio leader David Singley, plus crafty drummer Ron Edgar. The latter gent spent 12 years in L.A. as a studio drummer, working with Victor Feldman and other heavyweights. Edgar describes himself as an “underground, selective player,” and the same tag could be applied to the rest of Everlasting’s clearly talented cast.

Renz gives each of them plenty of space to shine. He’s the most democratic kind of bandleader, a fellow whose primary interest is making the compositions blossom fully. That’s no surprise, since Renz wrote all 12 tunes on Everlasting. Composing and arranging is obviously the man’s forte. Some of these songs will stick to your ears like white on rice. Renz is a helluva chart writer.

I won’t do any blow-by-blow review of Everlasting’s contents. You can hear for yourself how hip the music is. Let’s just mention a few salient points. It’s apparent from the very first notes blown by Keni Holmen’s solo saxophone that listeners are in for something special. There are no tired head/solos/head arrangements on Everlasting, no overworked bop chords strung together haphazardly and no slumming blues ditties. Instead you get, boom! –an instant cadenza. There are several such solos that leap off this album and Renz the composer wastes no time letting Holmen fire off the first one. This is no random gesture, either. Everlasting is loose and a bit rambunctious, yet ultimately as well scripted as a play by Pinter.

“Well You Couldn’t” is an obvious tip of the composer’s cap to his greatness, Thelonious Monk. “Latin in Deed” is a stunner with plenty of Afro-Cuban fire yet no latin cliches. Brattain and Pemberton blow with precision then abandon, their horns soaring and sparring and scintillating. Singley sounds just a tad like 60’s Hungarian wizard Gabor Szabo in his splendid solo. And Edgar will have you reaching for those old Art Blakey meets Sabu records as he closes the track with some hands-on beauty.

Now dig the elegant voicings of “Cabin in the Rain,” where Renz’s electric bass packs room-filling weight. And relish the intertwined horn lines of “E flat Potato” and “Latch On,” worthy of some classic Blue Note or Prestige albums. Amazingly, these tracks were recorded live, with just one serious rehearsal and no overdubs or editing. “Tritone City,” with its extra sax part, is the only exception.

Well, I promised not to turn these notes into a review, so find your own fun on the second half-dozen tunes. But keep this is mind. On his 1982 debut album, Paul Renz was a guitarist in Virginia, playing mostly standard tunes. On the 1994 recording, Robert Black Conducts the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Silesian Philharmonic Orchestra, Renz was represented as a classical composer from the tundra of Minnesota. His “Symphonic Poem” was gorgeous, by the way. Now on this 1996 gem, Renz is an electric bassist and jazz bandleader with the best results yet. If in the next century, Renz returns as a cellist with a chamber group, or a dobro player in a country swing band, don’t be startled. Just listen hard. Because this guy’s bound to be up to something interesting and vital.

-Tom Surowicz

Tom Surowicz writes about music for the Twin Cities Reader, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Midwest Jazz, the Highland Villager, Request and other publications.