Skip to Content Skip to Navigation

THE CAL PAYNE PROJECT: Press/Reviews

Articles/Band Reviews

If Cal Payne's band gets labeled a jazz band, he's got no one but himself to blame. After all, the man plays a saxophone and that instrument's practically the go-to symbol for jazz music. Add to that the fact that his group, The Cal Payne Project, is all instrumental, and it's hard for anyone to imagine anything but jazz.
But Payne says simply, "I don't know what to call it." The problem for so many musicians like Payne today is not that they don't school themselves in all sorts of styles, from country to rock to jazz, and play with an open mind--they do. The problem is that people see a group with a certain formation and tend to jump to the most obvious labels. While one can't know everything about a group from a three-song demo, The Cal Payne Project is certainly as rock, and, specifically jam-rock oriented as it is jazz oriented, and moves between darker moods and lighter solos without landing definitively anywhere.

Now 37, the bandleader and his drummer, Curlan Moore, met in their high school band, and grew musically to play off one another instinctively. It was Moore who invited Payne to go to a special open mic session in New York City at a music studio called The Studio more than two years ago. Every Friday and Saturday night, the place would open its eight rooms and invite in musicians of various abilities to pick and choose open sessions devoted to different styles, from blues to jazz to rock. It was like a pick-up scene for musicians seeking to fill out their bands.

"You're allowed to go to any room you want, sit in and play," Payne says. Musicians on the more popular instruments (guitar, bass, drums) might have to form a line, but, as a horn player, Payne could almost always jump right into an improvisational session. And he could "try out" musicians without any messy commitment.

"I met everyone else there," he says. "Steve [Crumpton], the bass player, then Michael Burke [guitar] and Michael Drexler [keys]. I listened to them play... When I joined the whole thing, I always knew I was looking to find some musicians. I spent time jamming with them, talking to them, getting a sense of their personalities before I approached them. It's worked out really well from both a personality and creative standpoint."

The songs the New York-based group has recorded in the past two years show an ongoing dialogue between the musicians that often leads tracks in directions a listener wouldn't anticipate. The opening song "Journey" pits the guitar and sax in a dynamic exchange, while Moore keeps a light touch on the drums, giving the two a place to fall back to. Burke's climbing finger acrobatics on guitar as the song builds would be at home on a festival stage, sending an audience into spacey rapture. Payne on sax follows with a showy solo of his own and as the drums build and the keys come cascading in, there's a real emotional intensity. It's the moods one senses most keenly with The Cal Payne Project. The way the sax rears up through a darker jam; the way the perspective shifts and shifts again as a song progresses.

Being able to experiment musically at The Studio before forming the band was key for the way Payne writes and performs. "In a lot of my music I have elements that are very improvisational," Payne says, "and I like musicians that can pick up quickly and go in different directions. I do write parts and give them an idea of what I want, but I also want to know that they have the chops and the innovation to just go on their own. I really like to give musicians free rein to be creative within the context of what I'm trying to do."

If it sounds like a free jazz mantra, it's probably because much of what Payne does incorporates jazz. There are moments on the seven-minute-plus "Cruise Control" that would sound at home on New York's CD101.9 "Smooth Jazz" station (whose symbol is, not surprisingly, a saxophone). But that's clearly not the overall effect that he's going for. In the surrounding minutes of the song, there are moody elements, the sax notes stretching out. It drops to a heavier jam and then lifts again with a high, melodic guitar lead and delicate keyboard run. As Payne's solo takes over, the drum and bass put some bounce into the rhythm, but soon that moves on, too, to a keyboard solo that's detached and buoyant. Drexler is given plenty of that freedom and inverts his classical training to sheer improv, relinquishing at the end to a wild sax flourish that finishes the song. Enough is happening at any one time that it doesn't feel over-long.

Payne says it's the energy that the members bring to the group that keeps it engaging, and a listener will probably have a much better idea of their skills by catching them at the Green Room on Sat., Dec. 10, where they're playing a benefit for the Connecticut Food Bank. The group actually prefers a rowdy bar crowd to a sit-down, dinner-and-lounge crowd, further distancing themselves from traditional jazz players.

"The specific group of people and the style of music that we're bringing right now is very high energy and interactive audiences are what we love the most," Payne says. The show is free with two cans of food; interacting is optional, but highly recommended.

Song Reviews

Tight jazz burner!
Wow, really great stuff! I'm not a jazz player, but I think this song really displays a high degree of musicianship. The performance is tight, the mix is nice, I really like the drum sound, it's very suited to this song. The pace and drive is excellent. The arrangement is crisp, with the various instruments complementing rather than overpowering each other. The keys seem to come in a little loud at times, but that's a minor point. I really liked this song a lot.

I'm giving it 5 stars, which is pretty rare for me. Keep up the good work!
Monsters!
I'm getting sick of asking this: When the f**k is GarageBand.com going to add saxophone in the "extra credit" section?

Off the top, you can tell that these guys are serious players. The rhythm section is killer tight and throws down some mean grooves. I mean, SERIOUS grooves!

What really caught my attention was the blistering sax playing. This cat can blow some of the sweetest melodic lines then make that little horn just scream at the drop of a hat.

Guitarist kicks out some great fusion licks that are well-phrased and musical.

The piano solo gives the track some nice breathing room with some monster chops to match the rest of the band.

Performance is top-notch as is the arrangement. Over 7-minutes of very engaging music.

This one's a winner. Highly recommended.
Very Good.
The performance is great. I like the groove, the drummer is cookin. Very nice sax, bass, guitar and piano. The song is good. The arrangement is catchy and tight
Jazz fusion at its best
Why doesn't GarageBand.com have the option to give horn players extra credit? This sax player is a monster! Band wise, perfomance, song and arrangement are all top notch. Production is perfect allowing the listener to hear all the different instruments. Very enjoyable track. Highly recommended.
Busy B
Nice and fat, the intro here is just that. What a great freakin' groove. I'm really diggin' this one. Powerful, articulate horns, slamming bass and kick ass drums. Comtemporary jazz at work here and in full effect. What about the guitar and keys?????? The guitar and keys here are sweet to say the least, professional performances from all involved. Good overall changes, solo sections and a great vibe. This tune just joined my personal playlist. This joint is pure killin'.
Got my attention right off!
Great tune, band is nice and tight. Sax player sounds young, maybe? Maybe you guys are all young. Nice high energy piece. Nice arrangement, breaks away from the typical melody/solos/melody form by putting in the interludes. Great job, keep it up!
jazznouveau - Garageband (Feb 13, 2005)
I Dig It!
The performance sounds great. The groove is funky and smooth, very nice drum sound. All the playing top notch. I like the emotion in the sax. The arangement is good and tight. The mood is cool and dreamy. I dig it!
Smoooooooooothhhhh
What sounds like six, possibly seven members (depending on the keyboard configuration) roll along together on a smooth glide through a pop/jazz landscape. The production is right on, and every solo is suprisingly brief.

The track is anchored by the bass playing. High up in the mix, it allows for the soloists to veer off in many directions. The sax player seems to dominate most of the solos, but everyone is on equal footing.

Most importantly, there is an urgency to the playing, where the musicians collaboate fiercly without rushing. An excellent track.
Yay! Fusion Jazz with Soul
Wow! This is so incredible. I'm truly excited. Great intro with the drums and bass. I love when the sax creeps in with that undulating melody and then the piano starts in with a question-answer rhythm.

Excellent dynamic musically. Very well mixed; no instrument overrides the other and each is given space to be heard and appreciated. I listen to a lot of jazz, but this definitely sounds original. The mix and arrangement is what really defines this song and sets it apart qualitatively from the rest of the jazz songs I've heard on this site.

The keyboard, drums and sax are brilliant. This song is simply put an ineffebly visceral composition. One I will put on my playlist and probably repeat several times in an attempt to grasp it's complexity and depth of musicianship. Very well done.