Mark Egan often provides subtle accompaniment, holding things together with his bass work and making other musicians look good in his role as a studio musician. The music on Direction Home, his latest release, showcases a range of musical personality from the mellow support to the exuberant lead in a rush of cool, collected jazz compositions.
“Summer Fun”, a comfortable midtempo grooving track that is just the first in this collection of songs to highlight Egan’s ability to write simple yet fitting melodies, is Egan introducing his band and himself to the listener. The song opens Egan himself, longtime Egan musical partner-in-crime drummer Danny Gottlieb and keyboard player Mitchel Forman laying down the song’s core groove, feel and tone of this album. None of the players are too far in the front or too far in the back of the performance – an apt statement that captures the essence of each of the songs on this album.
The album’s second track, “Small Town Blues”, contrary to the name, feels less like a blues piece and more like a Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters-era performance. Trade out Hancock’s wonky synths and replace them with Forman’s full, resonant piano playing and you’ve got ‘Small Town Blues’. Is it a bad thing that it doesn’t feel at all like a blues track? Not at all. It’s a track that feels very much like Egan’s interpretation of the slinky, jazz-funk groove that was so popular throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. An enjoyable spin on a familiar groove none the less.
Though the album is, for all intents and purposes, Mark Egan’s album, Egan’s strong suit is the ability to let other musicians take center stage. “Mountain People”, the album’s title track and “After Math” are three examples that come to mind. Egan, a true sideman who can toggle on the fly between a lead and supportive role, gives Forman the keys to the musical car more often than not and lets him take the song in his own direction. Throughout the album, you can almost pinpoint the moment that Egan steps back musically and allows Forman and Gottlieb to take center stage or steps forward to take a solo or the melody.
Direction Home, as a collection of songs, has one noticeable drawback: no one song sticks it’s neck out too far. After giving this album many listens through from top to bottom, piercing ideas and observations together for this review, the one thought that kept poking back into my head was how there is a very clear similarity from one track to the next. Tempo changes and musical themes aside, many of these songs don’t rush the listener or make the listener do anything they wouldn’t do normally. Each of the songs on this album seem like they’re walking along the sidewalk, cool as a cucumber and without a care in the world. The songs are just that: cool and laid back and, though they have their own unique melodies to distinguish one song from the next, as a collection of songs listened to from start to finish, the uniqueness of each song easily gets lost from song to song.
For fans of Mark Egan and the musicians he summons to be part of his trios, quartets and quintets, this is an album worth checking out. For bass players, Egan’s fretless tone is as smooth, vocal and undeniably expressive as it’s ever been since his early days with Pat Metheny to this latest release. Each note comes through crisp and melodic. “Gratitude”, the most Egan-centric track on Direction Home, is the track to flip to to hear Egan’s bass at it’s best on this album. For fans of jazz and music to learn and study from, this is another lesson in the versatility of Danny Gottlieb and Mitchel Forman. When Egan is taking center stage, it’s very easy to hear the years of musical experience that are going into each of these musicians’ performances. Both are clearly very cognizant not to step on Egan while he is the focal point and to open up a very well-crafted musical space for Egan to shine in.