Now entering his second decade as an impactful, jazz based but ultimately genre-defying artist, NYC drummer Curtis Nowosad is no stranger to re-imaginings of offbeat classics – most notably, tapping into a passionate socially conscious aesthetic on his self-titled 2019 album and its remix-filled follow-up CNRMXD with bold, edgy twists on gems by Gil Scott-Heron, Skip James and Nina Simone.
While still a visionary musical crusader for social justice, Nowosad – a longtime force in the Harlem Sessions local arts collective – takes a slight thematic breather from the front lines of these historical battles on his latest EP If I Had. A powerful showcase of his ever-intuitive, free-flowing and tightly grooving camaraderie in a guitar trio format with longtime cohorts Andrew Renfroe (guitar) and Luke Sellick (bass), the four track, 25-and-a-half minute set includes expansive rock-jazz renditions of two familiar classics (“If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song),” “By the Time I Get To Phoenix”) balanced by two slightly more obscure tunes (Nick Drake’s “Road,” Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away”) from the socio-politically charged era of the 60’s and 70s.
“The ensemble’s opening immersion into “Road” is particularly fascinating as they take a subtle, two minute plucky acoustic song from Drake’s third and final album Pink Moon and turn it into a percussively dense, slow burning and hypnotically grooving romp driven by Renfroe’s fuzzed out electric guitar and Nowosad and Sellick’s trippy propulsion. On the next track, a wild-hearted, hard swinging jam through the Pete Seeger penned, Peter, Paul & Mary landmark, Nowosad grabs our rhythm-itchy ears with a tasty five second booming drum fill intro before Renfroe and Sellick go to town with some snappy, adventurous guitar-bass interplay and Renfroe takes off with colorful improvisations as the drummer and bassist pump along.
The trio’s most spacious arrangement comes with the Jimmy Webb penned, Glen Campbell immortalized “By the Time I Get To Phoenix.” It’s all at once moody, soulful, melancholy and hopeful, with a run time that allows for plenty of time for reflection on a love gone wrong and meditative improvisations that tap into the possibilities of what might have been. Not quite as atmospheric but equally heartfelt, soulful and spiritually longing,
the Stevie track, an album cut from the Grammy winning Fulfillingness’ First Finale, is a mid-tempo ballad that opens a soundscape for the EP’s most dramatic, hard driving and improv-rich fusion of the trio’s vast creative forces. Certainly at some point, Nowosad will return to his higher-minded themes, but here’s hoping in the meantime that this transcendent EP is just the foundation of a larger project of crafty covers to come.