Signal Quartet - Second Exploration: The Music of Ben Wolkins (Album Review)


Signal Quartet are a Michigander jazz ensemble composed of Ben Wolkins on trumpet and flugelhorn, Ian Blunden on guitar, Eric Nachtrab on bass, and Sean Perlmutter on drums. Wolkins' vision is showcased on the group's second album, Second Exploration: The Music of Ben Wolkins, which sees the quartet continue to use the loose structures of jazz to express emotions and moods that range from introspective to boisterous.

Signal Quartet is a highly cohesive group of players who waste no time or energy in their performances, being both economical and plentiful in their approach. On the opening track, "Fore!", the quartet demonstrate their ability to gel within ideas and motifs with reckless abandon, albiet rooted in rhyme and reason. The guitar and horn engage in romantic harmonizations, while the bass ruminates with complicated depth and darkness of mood.

On tracks such as "C.O.D." or "Worker Bee," the group show restraint, not breaking out into the cacophony they are capable of, as heard on the invigorating title track. Each member has an equally strong hand in this collection, and after some moments of intensity, the pieces consistently simmer down to showcase the intimate guitar work of Blunden, the unshowy but appreciable drums of Perlmutter, Nachtrab's pensive bass, and the wailing proclamations of Wolkins, resulting in flavourful jazz that is as smooth as air.

Despite this smoothness and colour, there's an almost comfort-blanket level of attachment to thematically vague jazz traditions that holds the group back from giving their music an edge in the contemporary jazz scene, which can be elitist at times. Instead, Signal Quartet pushes against the boundaries of jazz without breaking them, bouncing off the conventions while still delivering moments of novelty and invention, such as the naked and inventive drum fills of "Nothing Missing" or the autoclave energy of "Slow Brew," where the guitar, bass, and drums battle it out for center-stage while the horn mediates and provides the diplomacy between the extremes.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this album is that all members of the group are given ample space and freedom to play with and around Wolkins' compositions. While Second Exploration may not have an idiosyncratic edge, it's the unpredictability of how the players colour within the lines that leaves the deepest impression.