Among the many iconic saxophone players Jeff Ryan lists as influences in his development as a top flight player and performer, he can narrow his list down to a single performer and track that made him fall in love with contemporary urban jazz as a kid and set him on his course to become a multi-talented artist himself. It was “Candlelight” from Richard Elliot’s 1994 classic After Dark album. It is not surprising then that upon first, and then multiple listens to Ryan’s powerhouse debut single “Up and Up,” we can hear that mix of sultry steam and robustness, that same kind of intense, soulful energy that had one critic once proclaim that Elliot was “the James Brown of Contemporary Jazz.”
It’s a vibe that infuses all ten tracks of his remarkable debut album, the invitingly titled Embrace. Collaborating with keyboardist, composer and producer Greg Manning, he fashions his own vibrant contemporary twist on the heart-searing vibe that cats like Elliot and Gerald Albright have mastered over the years. Super-melodic and ear catching from the get-go, “Up and Up” begins with a passionate burst of emotional energy, with Manning’s catchy keyboard harmonies playing off the lead. In a single four and a half minute track, Ryan takes us on a breakneck ride that showcases a spectrum of emotion and an uncanny ability to chill us out while building tension before the next burst of brassy sunshine.
As if to show that his sense of soulfulness can come via different moods, Ryan creates a slow burning, atmosphere and horn caressed seduction on “Blue Wave,” which features the sax in joyful conversation with Manning’s lighthearted keys. He stays in the moonlit mode on the dreamy, infectiously hypnotic “Dusk to Dawn,” which features a cool horn doubling effect on the catchy hook. Then it’s back to the tight pocket mid-tempo funk on “Sweet Spot,” as Manning lays a bed of dark chords and shuffling beats for Ryan to launch into his soaring hook. The real joy comes in the middle, when the saxman joins forces with sizzling horn textures, followed by some wild improvisations. Following that, his passionate re-imagining of Bruno Mars’ hit “Versace on the Floor” brings a fresh emotional urgency to the song we thought we knew.
Continuing the enticing back and forth between high energy grooving and sweet sensuality flowing, Ryan’s next stop is “The Edge of Tomorrow,” a wistful, horn drenched power ballad whose laid back vibe on the verses – and ethereal electronic atmospheres - will set the heart to dreaming. The track with the hippest production is the explosive “J-Factor,” which features an artful balance between high octane brass hooks and playfully rhythmic verses over deep percussion – and some super-trippy retro keyboard action by Manning. As the name might indicate, the title track “Embrace” is all late night passion and candlelight, a ballad full of heartfelt poetry set to an ever-soaring sax. “Matter of Fact” comes late in the tracking, but don’t skip past it – it’s a clap-along soul-blues jam sparked by fun gospel trimmings and lively party voices. This is the dance floor smash Bruno wish he could write, the most crazy-dynamic joint on the album. Ryan wraps his Embrace tenderly with the sparsely arranged, finger snap percussion, acoustic guitar and sax driven sing and sway-along “Tenderly.”
“Embrace” is not only an incredible blast of a debut by an artist for whom, to quote Oli Silk, the limit’s the sky, but hands down, the best genre album of the year so far!