Subtle Energy finds Seattle-based guitarist Rik Wright reinterpreting five tunes culled from his “colors” trilogy: Blue (2013), Red (2014), and Green (2015). Joining him, as always, are multi-instrumentalist James DeJoie, bassist Geoff Harper, and drummer-percussionist Greg Campbell. This time around, DeJoie plays only the clarinet, a decision on the part of the bandleader, who has an affinity for the sound of clarinet and guitar together. After working out new arrangements (many transposed from originals written for flute, alto and baritone saxophones), he and the band stepped into Seattle’s Jack Straw Cultural Center studios on 16 January 2016 to record a live performance for Doug Haire’s renowned Sonarchy Radio program. After the radio session, the band left their gear in the studio and returned the next day to record the material again straight through, live and with no overdubs, to create the present album.
All of which makes the name of its opening tune, Butterfly Effect, that much more appropriate. Rooted in countless hours of rehearsal and gigging, the music branches from a straitlaced bass line, which like the title ripples outward into universal resonances, as if by natural design. The clarinet adds distinct color to the Fundamental Forces spectrum and feels indispensable the more one listens. As Wright predicts, the relationship between reed and guitar is a lovely one, and the ways in which the bandleader unravels deeper implications of said relationship are indicative of just how far his musicianship has come.
One can always be sure of dynamism in Wright’s music, and even though this album at first feels more laid back than its predecessors, it still yields an intensity of emotion. This is never more evident than on the title track, Subtle Energy, which finds the musicians connecting seemingly incongruous elements that together reveal engaging melodies and effervescent solo performances with a keen compass. In comparison the shortest track, Patience, concludes the album with five minutes of meandering rubato tenderness ending in the fading wisp of unison clarinet and guitar.
Yearning and Nonchalant form the album’s softer center, showing Wright’s sensitive side. Each is a fine vehicle for DeJoie and his clarinet, which interlocks with Campbell’s finessed percussion and brings out the hidden messages of Harper’s indispensable bassing. Through it all, Wright’s voice remains central, as he both sets up tunes and unravels their finer implications. His way with a guitar is visceral and sometimes surreal, but always telling a story. For on the canvases of these tunes, the guitar is not instrument but pen, signing off every tale with a careful flourish.