David Bowden knows how to wring some delicious elasticity from the electric bass – the key feature on his band Mezcla‘s debut LP, Shoot the Moon. As a bandleader and composer, Bowden’s breaking out with an eye (and ear) for bigger things on his first recording. And he’s doing it with some bold pronouncements. Just listen to the four-string rubberiness on the opening title track or the plucky buoyancy he displays throughout the proceedings. But, elsewhere, the record, whose jazz fusion stylings flirt with funk and the world music studies that enriched Bowden’s palate in Ghana and elsewhere, doesn’t live up to Bowden’s example. It’s a good record and surprisingly listenable. It’s just that, with Bowden at the helm, it could have been drop-dead enrapturing.
Much like fellow Scotsmen Graham Costello’s STRATA, this star-studded, Glasgow septet had some Atlas-sized expectations placed on them when they entered the studio. Bowden was named BBC’s Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year in 2017, keyboardist Alan Benzie is a Berklee Billboard winner, and Jazzwise called drummer Stephen Henderson “one to watch” in 2018. The band is rounded out by Michael Butcher on tenor sax, Joshua Elcock on trumpet, Ben MacDonald on guitar, and Steve Forman on percussion. But, while there are some great moments (more on that later), the record’s nine tracks ultimately don’t glue themselves together as a cohesive narrative. It’s a lot of colors – sometimes eye-popping good colors – that could use more inter-compositional form or sequencing.
It’s not for lack of trying. The shimmering synth solo and pressurized poly-rhythms on “Dinosaur Jump” will spin you ’round in circles. This is not a trick that a musician falls into accidentally. When Bowden begins to ride the bass in double-time around the five-minute mark, you can hear the unspoken communication these guys have developed as an ensemble. It’s unbelievably effective and engaging.”Winter Walk”, on the other hand, is wonderfully subtle, almost bluesy in its colors and led by a pitch-perfect trumpet, a lonely wail in the dusty urban night. The piece builds, even if not to a ruckus, but that trumpet remains passionately front-and-center, and Mezcla’s record is all the better for it. “Knockan Crag” is a hell of a closer, and its scale is just the right size to urge the listener to consider another spin of the LP.
But, on other songs, the band don’t fall on formula, the tried and tired and true, as much as they stop slightly short of work that’s truly inspiring. Guitarist Ben MacDonald redeems himself a bit on the closing track, but early in the record, he is muted and hesitant to the point of barely registering. On “Volta”, the record’s second track, there’s a bongo- and bass-assisted shimmy that begs for a scorching guitar lead. MacDonald lurks quietly somewhere in the background. Lost opportunity. “Sami’s Tune” starts with an off-kilter blast of horns that will leave some checker-adorned fans skanking but ultimately overstays its welcome. Not even a robust solo from Elcock’s trumpet does a whole lot to save it. Another lost opportunity.
According to press materials, the name “Mezcla” means mixture, and that’s eerily appropriate, even prescient, for a band sitting at the intersection of world music and jazz fusion, with views of Africa, Latin America, and North American R&B. What they present here is worthy of a listen, if mostly for the technicality with which they lend their music-subjects. The record’s good, but it could’ve been tremendous. – Justin Vellucci, PopMatters, Jan. 30, 2020