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Sam Crain's Toasty Relief - tasty cuts to savour

As I listen to Sam Crain's Toasty Relief through headphones (so as not to wake the house) at 5 a.m. on Brisbane Summer morning I can't help but find the irony of the title bizarrely amusing. Here I am with the aircon cranked up get the temperature DOWN to 23 degrees C, while Sam wrote the title track to express the relief he felt after finally having the heat restored to his home in Springfield Illinois, it being December at the time.

Such is the strangeness of finding music on the net, connecting sub-tropical Brisbane, Australia with Springfield, Illinois home of Abraham Lincoln, the corn dog on a stick, the horseshoe sandwich and ... Sam Crain.

Toasty Relief is one of 16 CDs Sam Crain has on CD baby, which has got to be some sort of record. Despite his profligacy, there's no lack of quality. I'm starting with Toasty Relief and already I'm delving into his back catalogue of guitar jazz. My tastes lean towards funky sounds, which Sam provides on this and many other cuts, while others (probably more) have been snapping up Sam's adventures in straight ahead, small combo jazz and standards. Sam is a jazz guitar enthusiast with a background in classical composition. He's honed his chops in countless gigs and bands since the late '60s.

Like another famous composer whose first love is guitar (Walter Becker of Steely Dan) Sam's duties on bass have been much in demand over the years, especially in bands who "already have a guitarist". This stands him in good stead in Toasty Relief where he plays all the instruments, laying down rhythm with an Ibanez 5-string bass and a Yamaha RX-15 drum machine, then layering in his chords and melodies with a Peavey DPM Synth, Bill Cook archtop, and an Ibanez SE Series Strat. Not necessarily in that order.

Toasty Relief opens with Dream Theme. Sam writes "a simple melody played over an equally simple chord progression, uses 2 different keyboard sonorities for the melody, with a couple twangy guitar solos". Sam's guitar influences cover the gamut of jazz and rock, especially Jim Hall Joshua Breakstone, Jesse Van Ruller and Wes Montgomery. In otherwords, a fine mix of melody and tasty rhythm playing. It shows it here. Dream theme is a lush surround sound chunky number with the guitar taking the melody at the outset and then branching into solo. The first keyboard melody is a bright acoustic sound, the second is a breathy note.

Take Me Away, Sam writes, is "more energetic rhythmically, basically a monochordal thing which ascends in half-steps". The guitar is out in front here, playing a free and easy modal ramble over light strings.

Mucho Dinero Poco Trabajo (much money, little work) is a 12-bar blues with a melody strangely reminiscent of Mexico. The melody chimes against a slightly latin rhythm guitar, then some quite declarative and upbeat soloing follows.

Sam notes that Fulsome Prism Blues (a take-off on Folsom Prison Blues) "is not really a blues (even though it is a I-IV-V progression)". A number of guitar textures weave through this one (no keyboards) played in single lines. The following track Deep in the Woods also is just guitars, "layered again, but more strumming in this one than single lines". A chorus effect fills this track with a steely, acoustic sound. By now the new furnace has warmed through the five layers of clothing and the fine Australian cabernet-shiraz is soothing your frazzled nerves.

We can can skip the keyboards only Beautiful Interlude after all, this is a guitar album. But hang on, Sam writes "kind of like a Passacaglia (or maybe Chaconne)".

In music a passacaglia (French: passacaille, Spanish: passacalle or pasacalle) is a musical form and the corresponding court dance. Its name derives from the Spanish pasear (to walk) and calle (street), supposedly to denote the music played by wandering musicians. The chaconne is almost identical with the passacaglia, except that in the passacaglia the repeated theme is not always in the bass, normally a more-or-less fixed chord progression , 8 or 16 bars repeated in tandem throughout most of the piece. A common chord progression is the "circle of fifths" progression, especially in a minor key. (Wikipedia.) Well there you go.

Maybe all this courtly love is to get you in the mood for the following balled, CLJ, beautifully played with solo guitar against light keyboard strings.

Then comes the title track Toasty Relief, a syncopated melody played on keyboard, first in Cm and then in E-flat minor. A nice easy groove with hints of Jamaican skies. A breathy number Hot Summer Night is more guitar-oriented. A simple progression, from minor i to iv. In the accompanying guitar parts Sam used the whammy bar to add more colour. This gives the tune a kind of "missing vocal" feel, as though you can hear the words "sail away" in girl chorus on the chords.

Day Song a solo guitar piece, key of D. This one's good to play along with, right hand on the D chord on the piano and just ramble through the notes, tossing in a G and an A and a Bm7 along the way.

Sunday's Mood is reminiscent of Hot Summer Night. Sam call it a "sort of bossa rhythm thing in D minor and A minor", alternating between the keys. Sam stretches out on the solos as the tune moves along.

Sam's notes for A Trip to Pleasantville call it "a very pleasant, almost sugar-coated thing". That's a bit harsh. It's a great bass driven number with all the bright energy of D major. This has the ironic charm of 1960s kids listing to jazz half hours in their suburban middle America homes. A bit like Donad Fagen's reminiscences of a 50s and 60s America imagining the future:

Here at home we'll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There'll be spandex jackets one for everyone (I.G.Y )

The closing track, rize-n-shine is based on the So What/Impressions chord progression.

In modal jazz, among the significant compositions were "So What" by Miles Davis and "Impressions" by John Coltrane. They follow the same AABA song form and were in D dorian for the A sections and modulated a half step up to Eb Dorian for the B section. Dorian mode is the minor scale with a raised sixth. In improvising within a modal context, a musician would basically start by thinking about playing the notes within that specific mode (e.g., D dorian: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D). It is also possible to take several notes from that mode (and not all) to create smaller scales or note choices for improvisation. For example, in D dorian, one may play the notes of the D minor triad. This is what Miles Davis does at the beginning of his solo in "So What". The player may even choose any of the triads available in that mode: C maj, Dmin, Emin etc. One thing to note is that choosing an upper structure triad of the chord will result in tension. (Wikipedia - modal jazz)

Sam uses Dm 7, E-flat m7, Dm 7 ascending by half-steps each time through the form. The backgrounds also change with each ascending key. He writes: "I was trying to create a somewhat different atmosphere each time out with this one."

In all, Toasty Relief has a 13 quite different guitar keyboard tracks, each one crafted quite purposefully and - as separate tunes - each able to stand alone. They all share the relaxed, but up-beat, "fine glass of red wine by the fire" feel. The solo guitar pieces have the greatest enduring charm, as the drum tracks tend to even out the timing perhaps a little too much on the "ensembles" -- to be expected when playing to a metronome, so to speak. The bass parts are a tasteful bed to play against, though I am sure Sam could get weird and funky and inventive with the bass if he wanted to. If he did it would give us another dimension to listen to.

The most refreshing aspect of Sam's application to his craft is his restraint. Unlike so many players with great facility, Sam doesn't overdo it -- he chooses his notes carefully, doesn't play too many, and leaves space between them for our own melodic invention as listeners.