It’s an age-old metaphor – the saxophone phallus – and yet some analogies have staying power because they help us characterise something abstract: style.
Ben Van Gelder is remarkably pretty. Before you even reach the point of extracting the CD his philosophical eyes appear hell-bent on transforming the listener to goo. And of course, nestled into his groin, is our favourite metaphor in all its un-glossy glory. His fingers are tenderly poised and the shadow along his fashionably stubbly cheekbones invites an infatuated stroke. But historically in jazz even the absolute icons prefer strange images and smudges on their albums and only when the record company runs out of money, is the mystery of their physical appearance revealed on the front of the ‘Best of…’. Because instrumental jazz is a notoriously abstract form and it is better illuminated and comprehended through metaphor. So inevitably one wonders, why did he need his photo as an amuse-bouche? (Remove the CD and there he is again! This time successfully seducing from beneath the CD’s unsensual plastic womb). Since he put himself there in all his handsomeness, he is asking to be judged superficially, so let us lay significance on the schoolboy white shirt he chooses to don and use it as our jazz metaphor. ‘Frame of Reference’ is effectively an extremely musical, impressive diploma recital.
It begins with ‘Guiding Principle’, a composition by the scholar himself, with careful keys work by youthful connoisseur and soloist in his own right, Aaron Parks. It’s a beautiful piece and Ben has clearly learned his scales with a lot more soul than many saxophonic masturbators that trawl the New York and Europe jazz scenes (and Kurt Rosenwinkel seems to cheekily lurk somewhere in the shadows of the entire album). The instrumentalists balance each other by being all well-educated and prodigiously passionate nice boys. Halfway through ‘Guiding Principle’ the melody and all the vibraphonic oohs fall away and the album’s high point licks your spine in a haunting chorale inviting the other instruments back in. This is perhaps the guiding principle the BVG trio should aspire to develop. Here, the ensemble is truly naked and unique.
The rest of the album is a beautifully played selection of compositions by the players and a couple of infamous standards by Monk and Coltrane. Frame of Reference is an A-grade title, appropriately summing up an album whose structures are just about visible, like the scaffolding of an unfinished house. It will one day be a beautiful mansion, perhaps one of the ones that stands out on the street, but it’s not quite worthy of the full-torso photograph, yet.