The jazz guitarist is more than able to lead both his band and the listener into far-off rhythmic and harmonic places, and crucially finds a way to bring everyone back, too.
As a member of jazz saxophonist Steve Coleman’s bands, guitarist Miles Okazaki has learned a few lessons about teasing. Coleman’s music often skates near the R&B mood, while moving restlessly between frequent changes in rhythm and harmony. At its best, tunes by the MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner cycle through the compositional variety with such equanimity, you hardly realize that his ensemble has avoided giving up the straight-ahead funk. On Trickster, Okazaki’s own music proves nearly as ingenious in its play with morphing grooves.
Opening track “Kudzu” begins with a fast flourish: a long, knotty line, played with a clean tone by the guitarist. Then, over the rhythm section’s unusual vamp, Okazaki restates some of this opening music, lingering over the material. Pianist Craig Taborn is in the mix, too, offering some mercurial chords. On a first pass, you might wonder: Where are we, exactly? Is this the main theme? The beginning of a strangely chill avant-garde solo? Before you have time to wallow in the uncertainty, Taborn and Okazaki join forces and display the song’s real hook.
During performances like these, it’s clear that this bandleader is interested in the unstable realm of rhythm and melody, the place where it's easy to get lost. Though he won’t leave you lost for long. On the slowly developing “The Calendar,” Okazaki begins in a contemplative mood. By the end of the track, he solos with fevered inspiration, as if all of time is running out. Like Okazaki, drummer Sean Rickman and bassist Anthony Tidd are also graduates of the Coleman school, which means they make these darting, surprising structures sound fully natural.
Over the hurtling rhythm of “Black Bolt,” one melodic cell travels through different octaves. You know it can’t go on like that forever. This initial lack of a clear destination point creates a suspense that is resolved when the pianist and guitarist begin racing to complete the other’s lines. After a stretch of roaming around in an attractive darkness, you get one clear payoff after another. During the brisk “Caduceus,” the interplay between Tidd, Taborn, and Okazaki results in glorious braids of melody. The execution is obviously complex, the work of virtuosi. But the resulting beauty is easy to appreciate.
Some performances on Trickster don’t quite manage to replicate that feat. A few of the obsessive phrases on the album stop just short of turning into memorable compositions (as with “Box in a Box”). Fortunately, some of the songs that sound the least like puzzles reveal that Okazaki can craft simpler themes that are just as stirring. “Mischief” is anchored by a strutting beat, one that fans of the Meters should appreciate. The relative stability of the song’s pulse allows Taborn the freedom to uncork one of his lengthy, exciting solos. And the miniature “Borderland” offers the album a lyrical coda. While Okazaki can be plenty entertaining as a master of misdirection, he also has a gift for direct communication.