Most great players will try their hand at the singer/songwriter role at some point, and many, alas, will underestimate its challenges and find ways around its most necessary difficulties. They will stretch their hot grooves, clever riffs and stock progressions into songlike things and not think terribly hard about the importance of form and arc. They will assume that emotional sincerity and the manners of soul alone are enough to carry the day as a lyricist and a melodist. They will call on all their finest player friends, and the final product will purr with feel, tasteful playing, heartfelt sentiment and top-shelf production. And everyone involved will agree that the record should have gotten more attention than it did, because it was at least as good as John Mayer’s last.
On his new release Jeremy Mage & the Magi (2014, Tummy Touch Records), the New Paltz-born multi-instrumentalist and credentialed New York City sideman Jeremy Mage can hardly be accused of taking the songwriting challenge lightly, or following the beaten path. The nine short pieces on this focused-but-eclectic collection are fastidiously crafted art/groove songs that insist on invention and surprise. The lyrics have been worked hard, refined to an imagistic, gemlike flame at times, and at others, striking in their conversational, autobiographical candor. Marvels of microfocus, dynamics and detail, the songs have also been selected and sequenced for strong thematic coherence.
On some songs, groove truly is the thing: the album’s centerpiece tandem of “Forever Revolution” and “Long Coastline,” for example. The former evokes the quirky, avant-groove sensibility and global consciousness of Kiko and Colossal Head Los Lobos, the latter the subtle funk counterpoint of Little Feat – not the Little Feat of Dixie Chicken, but the underrated, swanky and cerebral Little Feat of The Last Record Album and Time Loves a Hero. But even in these elegant, spacious groove workouts, Mage’s melodies sustain their shapeliness, their sharp corners and their surprises. For this achievement alone – resisting the ever-ready option of blues/soul melodic cliché – Jeremy Mage & the Magi deserves to be considered as a thing wholly apart from the genre of groove-based songwriting, with which it will often be carelessly grouped.
To be sure, Mage is a groovemeister of a high order. Part of that is natural, part of it acquired. Whether on his main instrument – keys – or guitar or percussion, Mage’s playing has that width and sweep, that margin for expression and for error, that has always distinguished players with great natural time-feel. That part may be inherited, but Mage has schooled it assiduously and with a global purview. He credits Rosendale’s Dean Jones as a casual and abiding mentor in his international musical education, along with a veritable Hall of Fame of notable locals: pianist John Esposito, the late drummer and educator Gene Randolph and world-oriented area musicians like Steve Gorn and Dana Flavin.
So Mage has the universe of groove under his fingers, and this album proves it track after track: the percolating electro-folk of “Next Again,” the fin de siècle psychedelic cabaret of “Waste this Year,” the relaxed ’70s conga-funk of “Howgooddoyouwannafeel?” the pastoral raga of “Priska Priska,” the broken-toy swing of “In July.”
Amidst all that rhythmic and referential diversity, Mage uses his sonic palette to establish coherence among the songs. Here, we can really detect the influence of Dean Jones, for Mage too favors sounds that are high-character, funky and small, wheezy, fritzy, chintzy and broken. Static is played like a drum, toys are repurposed in ways spooky and surreal, keyboards fried in fuzz. As a sound farmer, Mage aligns himself with dub and with the colorful, experimental electro-play of post-Colonial African music. But though the palette is wide and sometimes cartoonish, the deployment is strict – Minimalist, even – especially on “In July,” an oddly sparse song in which every single funky sound is discrete and palpable enough to grab right out of the air.
Wicked grooves, hot playing, brainy arrangement, global sensibility and innovative production, yes; but on the album’s final two tracks, Mage declares decisively that this is a songwriter’s record – not a player’s, not a producer’s. “My Father’s Guitar” is an audacious and experimental piece: a monophonic bluesy chant in which the verbal phrase, not the musical phrase, drives the length of the irregular melody, Gregorian-style. It is destined to be one of those binary love-or-hate (put me down for “love”) numbers – a candid, in some ways artless biography of the guitar that is the sole instrument on the track.
This is followed by the koan- and paradox-riddled Lydian piano ballad, “I Am My Own”: an Eastern philosophical poem and another dangerous yes-or-no proposition. Kudos to Jeremy Mage for all the limb-walking, risk-taking and gutsy conceptual songwriting on this fine and fully realized record.
To hear and purchase Jeremy Mage & the Magi, visit https://jeremymage.bandcamp.com or any online music retailer. Jeremy Mage performs solo with friends at the Hopped Up Café in High Falls on Friday, July 18 at 9 p.m. Jeremy Mage & the Magi perform at the Falcon in Marlboro on Saturday, August 9 at 7 p.m. with Arc Iris.
Jeremy Mage, Friday, July 18, 9 p.m., Hopped Up Café, 2303 Lucas Turnpike, High Falls; (845) 687-4750, www.hoppedupcafe.com. Saturday, August 9, 7 p.m., the Falcon, 1348 Route 9W, Marlboro; (845) 236-7970, www.liveatthefalcon.com.