It seems like the last few jazz guitar albums I’ve heard are somber affairs, with delicate and thoughtful notes plucked within the context of oceans of space. Shawn Purcell doesn’t fit that description–on his new album, Symmetricity, he goes full speed ahead and creates an exciting sound that bounces from genre to genre. Jazz guitarists aren’t known for shredding, but that’s such an apt description for what’s going on here with Purcell’s fingers skittering over the fretboard with heat and energy and sweat.
That’s doesn’t mean Shawn Purcell and his Heritage guitar are mere blurs throughout Symmetricity. He’s can slow down his quintet into the gentle groove of a ballad, such as the lyrical “Steady Comin’ At Ya,” but even then he’s thinking quickly, coaxing that electricity from his cohorts. This is an ensemble that covers all the bases and swings when it has to, or the wallpaper can start peeling and the whole group busts loose as one, even flirting with brief explosions of free jazz. Considering that most of these ten tracks are composed by Purcell, that hints at a performer who’s heard it all and knows how to paint on the layers of experience.
Perhaps that’s what makes Shawn Purcell’s background so unusual–he got his start playing guitar in the Air Force’s premier jazz band The Airmen of Note, and he stayed for eight years and toured the world. He left in 2004 and now plays with the US Navy Band’s Commodores. (He’s also yet another jazz educator–in this case he’s an adjunct professor at George Mason.) Something about that history suggests rigor and tradition, but Purcell and his crew (sax player Luis Hernandez, keyboard player Todd Simon, bassist Regan Brough and drummer Stockton Helbing) often color outside the lines, combining the modern (he uses a Midi controller on some tracks) with the nostalgic (Simon occasionally plays a Hammond B-3 and a Fender Rhodes).
Darden Purcell, Shawn’s wife, contributes vocals on two tunes, “A Bela (for Darden)” and the closing “Norm’s View.” Her dreamy voice just hinges enough with Brazilian jazz to slow it all down, even if Shawn Purcell supplies a steady diet of notes. That makes for plenty of variety in Symmetricity, but Purcell’s guitar is an amazing constant, a power source that never gets unplugged.