Swagger can make or break a jazz record like Project Grand Slam’s East Side Sessions, but thanks to the confident demeanor of its players – including new singer Marilyn Castillo – it feels and sounds like an album worthy of the branding it wears. In songs like East Side Sessions’ “Hey Jake,” “Juliet Dances,” “I’m Falling Off of the World” and “Constable on Patrol,” this lineup of Project Grand Slam make one heck of a case for their being the tightest group of musicians to get behind Robert Miller to date. There aren’t as many bastions of the jazz ethic (learning the rules to better understand how to break them) as there used to be, but from where I sit, this unit is one of the best in the game right now.
In terms of skill, Marilyn Castillo brings a whole new set of weapons to PGS than her predecessor Ziarra Washington did. While Washington was a wild powerhouse who usually benefited from chaotic rhythms more than she did slow-moving songs, Castillo often sounds more comfortable unfurling a narrative in a plodding, tension-building fashion than she ever does jumping into the hottest flames in Miller’s bass-driven blaze. There’s an eccentricity she offers in the country-themed “The Pardners,” rock-flavored “The One I’m Not Supposed to See” and Latin beats of “It Don’t Matter” that I didn’t think I’d hear in this record, and to be perfectly frank, I’m very glad that I did. Washington was a homerun machine herself, but Castillo makes Project Grand Slam into an entirely different entity.
The edginess created by the combined bass and drum grooving in songs like “Stockbridge Fanfare” and “It is a Miracle to Me” lends a lot of additional emotion to the lyrics in both of the tracks that wouldn’t have been present in another setup. Nothing in East Side Sessions centers on the stylizations created by one particular player over another, and though the poetry Castillo delivers from the top of the mix is often the most evocative element to enjoy here, it doesn’t eclipse any of its counterparts for even a second. Balance is everything in jazz, and it’s something Robert Miller has learned to conjure up seemingly on command.
I’ve been a big fan of Project Grand Slam for years now, and much as I had both hoped and expected to hear in this latest release, they submit another undisputed hit with East Side Sessions. All twelve of its tracks are essential to comprehending its grandeur and complex structure, and personally, I would recommend listening to it from start to finish without interruption in initial sit-downs with its contents. Miller’s progressive-minded songwriting is sounding as original and fascinating as it ever has, and though this is another bar-raising record for his group, my gut tells me he won’t waste any time getting back into the studio in an effort to improve upon his latest standard. East Side Sessions is a wonderful LP for newcomers to the PGS sound and loyal disciples the same, and it’s definitely one of my favorite jazz records out this May.