Contemporary jazz is something that I admittedly don’t have a lot of experience with, but do have a natural allure to. Seeing as progressive rock, metal, and hip-hop make up a large amount of the art in my life, it’s not hard to sell me on music that those genres are partially derivative of. Mammal Hands, a relatively newer band, have carved out a foothold in the expansive, monolithic genre as a trio made up of Jordan Smart on saxophone, Nick Smart on keyboards, and Jesse Barrett on drums. Together, they play jazz that is understated and highly evocative while retaining all of the beauty that comes naturally to the genre. Their latest album, Shadow Work, is the most indicative of that, but does it have longevity?
More than ever, jazz and jazz-influenced music makes me think. Sometimes it’s of memories of mine, but usually it’s of oddly specific places, even ones that I haven’t been to yet. “Three Good Things” makes me think of looking out the window of a lavish penthouse suite at the top of a skyscraper entrenched in New York City at night. “Being Here” pulls me to a suburban field, green with lush grass and flanked by shimmying trees where the light from a setting sun splashes onto me through their leaves. It’s like musical virtual reality. Shadow Work is a sensory experience not limited to the ears. That’s where its sound has the most strength and when the album is at its best: when it’s influencing your other senses and building an experience for you.
“Wringer”, the second track, houses a lot of rhythm in it. The piano and sax often harmonize together with the timing of their playing and it creates a warm sound that I would expect to hear in a dimly lit jazz club. A couple tracks later, “Three Good Things” starts slow with an emotive saxophone and deep piano notes. The percussion really switches things up in the middle of the track, utilizing a tabla hand drum while the piano elegantly dances over it. It’s moments like this where the high level of musical texture really shows. Thankfully, the tabla appears multiple times throughout the album to bless us.
“Transfixed” is the longest track and the album’s climax. While the rest of the record has been mostly chilled on ice like a nice whiskey, this song has the variance and action needed to set it apart from most of the rest of the tracklist. The sax leads in the intro with some great flourishes, never sticking to the same riffs for too long, and always progressing. The song enters a whole new segment a little over three minutes in, where the Rhodes piano changes the sound up to create the groundwork with the drums that carry the sax’s varied leads and vivid soloing.
“Being Here” is an interesting choice for an album finisher. It’s a slow piano piece with the sounds of nature used as a backdrop. Spring fills the air as birds chirp and create a very soothing ambiance. It’s as if the band wanted to take a snapshot of a moment of “Being Here”, where ‘here’ is a place of great, almost zen-like calm and relaxation. This song is like the final moments of a long massage, giving me a relaxing feeling if I close my eyes and allow myself to really listen to it. It’s a great come-down from the comparative frenzy that was “Transfixed”.
Songs like “Solitary Bee” and “Near Far”, while lush and pretty, didn’t have the same effect on me as other songs did. For me, they were lulls in the tracklist. Perhaps that’s just fine, and only further enables the enjoyment had with the other songs I mentioned before, but they were the unmistakably lower moments in the album for me. “Near Far” is a short interlude track that is placed a little too close to “Being Here”, which makes it feel a little unnecessary. I also feel like “Solitary Bee” doesn’t fully utilize the musicianship of the artists or the wide range of possible textures here like other tracks do. It was just average. But average on an album like this looks a lot more like a flaw than it might in other circumstances.
Throughout my numerous listens of the album, I also struggled to remember much of it after the fact. Although I clearly remembered which tracks left more of an impression on me than others, and overall the music resonates with me pretty deeply, it didn’t seem to stick with me like other albums I enjoy. Much like the moments in time or mental pictures that this music elicits, Shadow Work is fleeting. In the moment, this album is magical, but after the trip I struggle to recall many details or specific musical hooks that would draw me back in for another full listen. This is one of those albums that I will undoubtedly add to my relevant Spotify playlists once it is on the streaming service, but not one I often see myself returning to separately.
I said early on in this review that Shadow Work is best when it’s influencing your other senses. To expand on that more, and perhaps be a little cliché about it, this album is all about the experience. It engages you – grips you – with its velvety saxophone leads, elegant piano and dynamic percussion. For me, the grip releases too soon after, but that doesn’t mean the moment wasn’t enjoyable on its own. It’s like seeing an old friend for a couple hours only to have the bittersweet sting of separation hit you when the moment is gone. Maybe the album will have more staying power with you, reader. If so, enjoy it as long as you’re able to because there truly is a lot to love here.
Notable tracks: “Wringer”; “Three Good Things”; “Transfixed”
FFO: GoGo Penguin, Portico Quartet, Sons of Kemet