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Arts Desk
Every week on the air there's a special focus on one particular jazz album. Check them all out here!

Jazz Album of the Week: Bassist Nicholas Krolak’s Voice = Power Is Spirited and Spiritual

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May 26, 2020. Assembled here for Voice = Power—the follow-up to bassist Nicholas Krolak’s 2018 debut Chicory Root—are the component parts of the traditional Art Blakey-style hard bop quintet. Combine that with the fact that Krolak’s most notable side work has been with local heavyweights like Larry McKenna, John Swana, and Tony Miceli, and it’d be reasonable to assume the 10 tracks and 50 minutes of Voice = Power would be a mostly straight-forward affair.

Not so much.

Krolak lives in Philadelphia but spends a lot of time in nature, cherishing afternoons spent rock climbing and evenings spent meditatively gazing upon the stars, considering the dichotomy between the ever-changing urban landscape in which he lives and the fact that his ancestors once looked up and saw the same stars in the same sky.

He’s a deep cat and a different kind of songwriter—perhaps a different kind of jazz musician altogether.

He’s like the bass-playing, modern embodiment of Walt Whitman. And, just as Whitman used his prose poems, Krolak uses his music to celebrate and also reconcile the competing and contradictory nature of the two worlds he straddles: the natural and the urban.

On the cover of Chicory Root, Krolak actually resembles a young Whitman, pictured barefoot and robustly bearded among a stand of trees, upright bass held humbly and functionally at his side, as though it might double as an unwieldy walking stick.

Here, in his sophomore release, Krolak has found his footing…and his voice, his source of power. It’s that voice we hear permeating the 10 original compositions; it’s even his voice that’s present when what, or who, we hear is another voice—he’s written both the lyrics for vocalist V. Shayne Frederick to sing on the closer, “This is Our Moment," and the cosmic and earnestly grandiose poetry for Frederick’s turns at spoken word on “Speaking Back through Time” and “A Mannequin’s Hands."

Tim Brey, the young Philadelphia pianist whose star continues to rise, once again proves worthy of the recognition, this time for showing just how versatile a musician he is. His role here couldn’t be more different than when last I saw him over two months ago at Chris’ Jazz Cafe accompanying Veronica Swift on songbook tunes and Anita O’Day covers.

Here, it’s often dark, recursive riffs redolent of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke or, perhaps more accurately, Brad Mehldau covering Thom Yorke.

In some instances, like “Providence,” the opening cut, soloists Elliot Bild (trumpet) and Jon Katz (alto saxophone) are given so much improvisational leeway that one fears the constant expansion of the universe will drag them irretrievably into deep space, but, alas, Brey is gravity.

My lone gripe about this cosmic dynamic between Brey and the horn soloists is not an issue of musicality but one of engineering—in instances where Bild and Katz soloed, the mix on Brey’s piano—and on Gusten Rudolph’s drums for that matter, was too high, relegating the soloists as secondary, when the opposite should be true.

One must allow for the possibility this was Krolak’s aesthetic choice—it does lend the music a bit of an out-of-time disorienting quality; on “Stargazer II,” Katz’s saxophone sounds light years away, like it’s playing through a telephone on the line with another dimension.

This was most noticeable on the three “Interlude” tracks. Brey’s playing is outstanding, but especially on “Interlude 1,” the uneven mix drowns out an otherwise memorable alto solo from Katz that takes on the quality music takes on in dreams after you’ve fallen asleep once again to WRTI 90.1.

“Crucian Lullaby” is a tune that might be filed under “island noir”—something calamitous has happened on St. Croix, and the only cure is Bild’s most prominent solo of the outing. Rudolph’s work behind the kit is most impressive here, too, captaining the group through time and tempo changes with fluidity.

Though my two favorite cuts on the album are the ten-plus minute “3” and the closer, “This is Our Moment.”

Brey’s minute-plus prologue on the latter is a strong candidate for the album’s most musically beautiful moment. It’s just Brey and Frederick’s distinct countertenor, which would steal the show if not for Brey’s gentle accompaniment which becomes simply astonishing in light of how explosive his playing is elsewhere on the album.

“3” is the closest thing to a purely straight-ahead composition on the album, and it’s where we hear Krolak swing hardest on bass, with true propulsive intent. Everyone gets a turn out front, even Rudolph, who for the most part has laid back content to drive the bus and get everyone where they need to get to on time. The solos are memorable and, thematically, it’s the most cohesive tune on the record. For that reason, it’s the most memorable.