Album Review: The Justin Rothberg Group – Hurricane Mouse

Too often, when an artist makes music that starts with a jazz foundation and leans in an “accessible” direction, the result is smooth jazz. Ugh. It’s the rare artist who takes jazz textures and makes music that is both challenging and melodic. Hurricane Mouse by the Justin Rothberg Group is a successful case in point: guitarist Rothberg has the chops to crank out knotty progrockfunkjazz, and he does just that. But even while employing additional instrumentation more closely associated with jazz (saxophones and woodwinds), the results are anchored in arrangements that won’t scare off the less adventurously-inclined listener.

Backed by a bassist, drummer, percussionist and reed player, Rothberg (on guitars and mandolin) churns out instrumental tunes that are catchy and exploratory at the same time. There’s a playful vibe that sometimes comes through in the music (check “G-Sus Band”) but often as not, the inside-joking is restricted to song titles. This is purely instrumental music, but songs like “Piece of Mind” get their vibe across without the need for lyrics.

Here and there the music does creep toward smoothness, but even in those cases there’s always some element – a tricky percussion part, and stuttering bass figure, an unexpected trilling mandolin – to knock things just enough off-center to keep things interesting. The interplay between the musicians is fiery yet controlled; there’s none of the musical onanism one finds in dreaded “jam band” music.

Hurricane Mouse is the third full-length from New York City-based Rothberg. He’s been working with the other players on this record for some years, and that comes through in the performances.

Favorite track: the swinging, bluesy (and banjo-free) “South Beach Banjo.”