(Cassel Music, CD)
Laid-back but sophisticated, John Cassel's tunes are as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. With more than three decades in the Vermont jazz scene, Cassel is something of an institution. His residency at the Trapp Family Lodge keeps him busy most weeks, but the pianist/vocalist/songwriter has still found time to share the stage with the likes of Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea and Gary Burton, to name a few.
Jade Lady -- a project begun sometime in the '80s but completed only recently -- is a smooth-jazz home run. Featuring performances by local jazz titans such as Paul Asbell, Skeeter Camera and Steve Weinert, the disc also contains fine solo work by Brubeck saxophonist and flautist Bob Militello. While Cassel's vocals and arrangements are a bit on the schmaltzy side, his earnest, good-humored lyrics find a balance between the sappy and the swingin'.
"Rain in the Afternoon" has a gentle bossa nova bounce, with Cassel's slightly scruffy vocals resting in the mix like cubes of ice in a glass of scotch. The tune is representative of Jade Lady's overall vibe: meticulous in detail, but very listener-friendly.
The sleek "Dear Lisa" contains some Santana-esque guitar playing courtesy of Andre Maquera. The guitarist also assisted with production duties, tracking many of the sessions at his studio. Maquera's licks are pretty cool, but Militello steals the show with an intensely passionate flute solo.
The clever melodic twists in "Wind Train" are a hybrid of Martin Denny-style exotica and the funk-lite of early '70s movies. "Take me on your zephyr ride/express me to a mountainside/the breeze doing dances in the treetops," Cassel croons wryly, before tearing into a bit of scat singing.
Many of the tunes on the album feature elemental themes, with wind and water figuring prominently in Cassel's compositions. When he's not evoking nature, the songwriter sticks close to tales of romance, crafting wistful paeans to archetypal feminine figures. It might be a bit much for some, but Cassel's natural way with melody and lyric make it tough to fault him for his sentimentality. I mean, who doesn't secretly have a soft spot for Barry Manilow's "Copacabana"?
With its crack team of contributors and buoyant, effervescent tunes, Jade Lady has plenty of old-fashioned razzle-dazzle. Some of the players on the CD -- including Militello and Asbell -- join Cassell in performance at the Rusty Nail in Stowe on Wednesday, March 2.