There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Listeners might expect unambiguous joy to be all over a jazz album called Spiritual Awakening. But local trombonist Reginald Cyntje, whose music grows increasingly sophisticated, doesn’t follow such a straight line. His Spiritual Awakening is a beautiful enigma, with mystery in every corner of the album, from its melodies and harmonies to its texture and improv structure. It’s an unexpected turn from Cyntje’s previous work, but no less worthy.
Much of the inscrutable mood is embodied in the Fender Rhodes played by Cyntje’s longtime pianist, Allyn Johnson. He uses the electric piano on four of the album’s nine tracks, tuning his techniques to suit that instrument’s steely, shimmering tone: He plays with sustained notes, close dissonances, and undulating vamps and trills. (A little bit of Rhodes goes a long way—Johnson is barely there in his comping of vocalist Christie Dashiell on “Atonement,” but still impossible to ignore.) Johnson also experiments with a panning effect: licks, arpeggios, even single notes that start in the right channel and end in the left (or fluctuate in between, as in a long, low drone in his solo on “Awakening”). It heightens the ethereal character of the Rhodes, doubly so when paired with the iridescence of Victor Provost’s steel pan drum.
The tones of Cyntje, tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, and Dashiell’s wordless contralto provide a darker, earthier contrast to that celestial sound, as do bassist Herman Burney and drummer Amin Gumbs (replaced on two tracks by C.V. Dashiell), who blend swinging cross-rhythms with the Afro-Caribbean grooves that are Cyntje’s musical foundation. Cyntje, as the ensemble’s leader, mitigates that contrast with quiet, unhurried minor-key melodies. “Awakening,” Spiritual Awakening’s lead-off track, slopes downward in both melody and harmony, naturally constraining the intensity that comes with high-note leaps. The trombonist’s solo stretches into the instrument’s upper ranges, but meanwhile, Johnson, Burney, and Gumbs whisper their accompaniment so that Cyntje’s ascent heightens the song’s tension rather than releasing it. On “Prayer,” Cyntje’s otherwise powerful instrument hides behind Dashiell and Settles during the heads, and Provost approaches his percussion instrument with a gentleness that belies his nimble speed. It’s as if the band wants to avoid revealing too much.
Much is revealed. The music’s subtlety encourages close listening and rewards it with some of the smartest solos this band has ever recorded. They share patterns and trade themes almost as in a classical sonata. Burney, for example, takes a solo on “Compassion” that breaks the written melody into fragments then works out variations of those fragments. Pianist Janelle Gill, who sits in on “Spiritual,” goes even further: She establishes a six-note lick, varies it twice, then spins variations on the variations. Gumbs takes a remarkable turn on the playful “Ritual,” interweaving African and Afro-Latin figures with triple-time workouts.
There are two points of release on Spiritual Awakening: a lesser one on “Beatitudes,” a jaunty blues number featuring trumpeter Kenny Rittenhouse; and the stunning closer “Rejoice,” which does exactly what it says with a theme that fuses Latin and New Orleans motifs with bebop melodies. Yet it’s the tension-building that gives Cyntje’s album its essential character, an exploration of spirituality as mysticism—and we who can merely perceive, not comprehend it.
Cyntje plays Brookland’s Jazz and Cultural Center on June 3.