While it’s a dumb, lazy rock canard that you’re automatically more genuine the more sprawling and trashy you are, it’s still true that the kind of sober musical strengths Terry favours could dip him straight into into the polished, preppy and staid. The clean-cut approach and old-school session-player clarity; the background of university studies, music teaching and classical guitar; the history of working dues paid at the modest end of rock bands and chamber ensembles. Then again, Terry’s also a Zappa fan with a taste for tongue-in-cheek, and a man who entertains himself by playing Dick Dale-flavoured prog-rock tributes to Toronto hockey teams on a pink-paisley Telecaster. There’s straight, and there’s not-so-straight.
Changing tack for his fourth album, Terry has set aside lyrics, singing and songwriting for the moment in order to reinvent himself through a different vintage lens. For ‘Shh.’, he’s exploring his skills as an instrumental jazz guitarist, albeit one who keeps his pop knack close to hand. Don’t expect much in the way of wild exploration or improvised threshing – Terry’s fluent, trim playing stays hand-in-glove with his upfront melodies, and most of the music sits nicely somewhere between 1950s-inflected cool jazz territory and clipped slap-back pop. Harkening after the bright tunefulness of Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell, it also keeps that Ventures/Shadows mix of twang and tune-dotting, while easing off into a relaxed George Benson accessibility.
There’s enough heart in the music to pull in some top Ottowan musical talent, all of whom play with warmth. Sharing drum duties with Jeff Asselin, Ouzo Power’s Ross Murray also co-produces. Jazz festival mainstay John Geggie provides most of the bass, while his fellow jazz veterans Dave Renaud and Peter Hum (plus Pulse Mondiale guitarist René Gely) make passing drop-ins as Terry’s front-line foils. Show-band stalwart Gino Scaffidi bolsters the rhythm guitar on half of the tracks, and there are further contributions from Afro-pop players Stu Watkins and Rob Graves, from Back-Talk Organ Trio’s Don Cumming and from classical percussionist Jonathan Wade. All of this gives ‘Shh.’ a diverse but easygoing small-group sound, an ability for quick shifts in style and the feeling of a happy gathering.
Terry’s prime concern, though, seems to be with keeping a friendly eye on the audience. In West Coast tradition, composition consistently trumps improvisation. Rather than brooding and brewing over a standard, Terry presents original engaging pieces of his own with clear straightforward hooks to hum along with and meticulous, perky arrangements. The album fires off short, tidy bursts of tunefulness like a musical espresso machine, all craft and polish. Every lick and fill is nicely honed, with the scope, rhythms and harmonic sophistication of jazz predominantly used as tools to gently buff and expand the melodies.
At its simplest, this emerges as breezy affectionate pastiche. On a couple of straightforward walking-jazz pieces, Terry strolls in loping step with Dave Renaud (who offers soft cartoonish clarinet on If It Walks Like A Duck and airy alto sax on Velvet Wings), and the two strut like two old buddies kidding each other over memories of smooth moves. Left to front the band by himself on Cool Cats, Terry switches between crisp finger-snapping swing and mellow reflection in an eyeblink, before blasting out a brief big-band roar via his fuzz pedal. Closing the record, Shake Shop Shenanigans abandons jazz altogether for snappy surf-rock, in which Terry’s early-’60s outlaw tone is offset both by its own fairground vigour and by Don Cummings’ background swipes of vaporous ghost-train organ.
Other pieces are less obvious, but stay unruffled. The ticking, steady pop instrumental Forever in a Day (on which Peter Hum offers an understated piano counterpart to Terry’s distorted, honeyed lead) breezes easily through its gentle, rhapsodic tune and its Latin undercurrents. René Gely adds nylon-string counterpoint to BG Bound’s driving song, conversing with Terry’s sleepy electric tones over the undulating bossa feel and the bobbing rhythms of Rob Graves’ congas and vibraslap. The three work together again on the velvety, Frisell-icana-styled duet of Gone; René adding occasional dreamy furls of steel guitar as well as nylon-string as Terry paints a happy lonesome sound full of gentle swells and breathy changes of mood.
No shocks, then – but that doesn’t mean that ‘Shh.’ is devoid of pleasing surprises. It’s easy to tag Terry for paying tribute to West Coast comfort and rock’n’roll twang, not to mention hopscotching gently in the footsteps of Hoagy Carmichael. But I suspect that, like Zappa, he’s well aware of the pastiche element. He’s open about ‘Shh.’ being influenced more by television and film soundtracks than by pure tradition, and he clearly loves the pop currency that he’s reshuffling in his own tunes. If he occasionally slinks along the cheese margin, he’s doing it deliberately and with enjoyment.
I’m also guessing that as well as the subliminal Zappa in Terry’s musical DNA, there’s a tiny touch of Spike Jones. ‘Shh.’ has no outright parody, no screams or gargling noises, but its good humour regularly spills over into outright winks and friendly stunts. Some of these are more vigorous than others (the fleeting music-hall flourishes of old-style melodrama, Queen-style) while others are inclusive chuckles embedded in the tunes themselves. Da Bug’s brush-drum shuffle toys with sly little shifts of metre, and with droll rolls and clucks of guitar picking. The tootling swing of Welcome cheerfully indulges a classical guitar-inspired section with bowed bass before nipping happily back into jazz (sparking some neat unison lines between Terry and Gino Scaffadi as it does).
All of this is too lighthearted, too integrated to be particularly postmodern or self-consciously stylised. It’s more the kind of gentle musical wit that’s been out of fashion for too long. At its broadest, it offers They Went That-a-Way, a theme for an imaginary helter-skelter Western that’s one-third ‘Bonanza’, one-third Eight Miles High and one-third Chuck Jones. Stuffed with galloping melodies and sudden switches in direction, this leads the band hither and yon in a hall-of mirrors scuttle; bursting in and out of cowboy orchestration, runaway fretboard zips and Jonathan Wade’s trick-bag rattle of orchestral percussion.
At the other end of the scale from the horse-laughs is The Skater. With the illustrative flair of a silent movie, a trio of Terrys etch out a musical impression of a day on the ice: a little cloudy, a little classical, it takes a Satie-via-Carmichael journey of long lines and pointed details. Beginning with initial lazy strokes across the rink, it builds through ambitious strumming to straining arabesques, only to career downwards in a windmilling slither of muted flamencoid chords as the skater heads out of control; finally picking up and reviving that cruising, swanlike dignity. There’s an art to this kind of light entertainment. Part of Terry’s own subtle artistry is to make it seem lighter than it really is.
Terry Gomes: ‘Shh.’
Bleeding Heart Recordings, BH01
Released: 15th May 2013