Dave Mihaly is a gentle giant of the San Francisco Bay Area music scene – a tall, poetically soft-spoken man with an expert drummer’s touch that lifts up every project in which he is involved. As a composer and bandleader, Dave gives his voice an outlet with his Shimmering Leaves Ensemble, an avant garde folk-jazz project notable for its absence of a bass player (most of the time).
Rivers is the second Shimmering Leaves Ensemble studio album, and it plays like a slowly unfolding painting. Trumpet, tenor and soprano sax, bass clarinet and viola provide aural brush strokes of varying widths and pressures, with gentle electric rhythm guitar anchoring much of the album.
The instrumentals, like “Oil Painting for Adolphe Sax & Coleman Hawkins,” for example, evoke the daring of Ornette Coleman’s earliest Prime Time ensemble, albeit in a much more subdued way, emphasizing the folk music aspect of Mihaly’s background as much as his jazz background. And tunes like “Honu” also draw a connection back to the free flowing, folky lyricism of the late, great Albert Ayler – again, in a more subdued way, the zen way of Dave Mihaly specifically.
The vocal selections depart somewhat from jazz, however, and spotlight tasteful accompaniment by master trumpeter Ara Anderson, Mihaly’s gentle guitar playing, and ironically plain spoken lyricism. Ironic because, if you’ve ever heard Mr. Mihaly speak, or have ever held a conversation with him, the words that so naturally roll off his tongue are stacked with creative metaphors and poetic imagery. In the case of a tune like “The Cat Tried to Catch a Hummingbird,” however, the story told is very much like what the title suggests. Imagine sitting in a yard on a sunny day and simply observing a cat watching and trying to catch a hummingbird, exercising its beginner’s mind and learning what is known and unknown, and you’ve got the basic gist of the tune. The listener is free to draw his or her own conclusions as to what the tune may or may not mean on a deeper level.
Coupled with a fold-out digipak decked with homegrown art and Mr. Mihaly’s endearing liner notes, Rivers captures a delicately beautiful perspective of this master musician’s artistry, while simultaneously putting the most creative, expressive elements of avant garde jazz and folk through a chill-vibe prism that may even widen the genre’s acceptance, given the chance. After all, part of the avant garde’s problem with the masses is its perception of often being too “noisy” or “crazy”. Rivers is neither – it moves at a pace anyone can follow, allowing the beautiful thoughtful melodies and structures of the tunes to envelop the listener’s psyche. These are rivers of warm, comfortable waters. Wade in and enjoy the swim.