Spark and Echo (2016)

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"Though Mark Lettieri’s third solo album may be a collection of independent vignettes, as a unit they cohere more than ever. United more by feel than concept, they provide ten snapshots of how far their composer has come as an artist. “I wanted to make a statement, and in that respect it’s almost my first record,” says Lettieri of the sessions. “I’m happy with everything I’ve done prior, but I think I’m finally getting it all together.” Listening to the tightness of his band, members of which he drew from the Dallas-Fort Worth funk belt of which he has become an important fixture, it’s easy to agree. The core trio consists of Lettieri, bassist Wes Stephenson, and drummer Jason Thomas. To this nexus he invites guest satellites Shaun Martin (Rhodes, synths, piano), Milo Deering (pedal steel guitar and fiddle), and Bobby Sparks (synths).

The album is framed by Goonsquad and its reprise, both radio-friendly jams. Lettieri sees it as his sci-fi, cinematic interpretation of a Prince groove. Such eclectic mind-melding in one tune is indicative of the bandleader’s multifaceted process, and illuminates the gravitational field into which the listener must prepare to be pulled. Lettieri gives a guttural performance, spitting starlight through gritted teeth as he balances the tightness of restraint with the fullness of expansive soloing. Other tunes, like the crushing Red Racer, are also cinematically oriented, while the head-bobbing goodness of Crystal Palace and Montreal takes inspiration from specific places in his travels. Like Slant, each is an atmospheric gem indicative of the album’s second, more texturally focused half. And perhaps nowhere so evocatively as on the country-twanged Summer Salt.

Where so much instrumental rock feels like background music in need of vocals, Lettieri’s is complete. Case in point: Little Minx, which recalls 80s rock at the height of its evocative powers. The overall effect is such that even the band’s take on Everybody Wants to Rule the World feels self-contained. If anything, its familiarities draw the listener in further: knowledge once again deepens the mystery. Pedal steel and fiddle are strangely appropriate, bringing out clarity to this definitive version of a tune Lettieri has mixed into live sets for years but has only now solidified on record.

A crowning success of Lettieri’s solo work is its narrative viability, which comes from a place of wanting to make music in the fullest sense. In this respect he leans toward jazz, insofar as each instrument has an equal role to play in the larger matrix. The high nostalgia quotient of the album’s title track taps into the essence of what Lettieri has achieved in the fullness of his craft. Lettieri thus styles himself a pop writer, taking from that formula a need for clearly defined beginnings, middles, and endings. He is conscious of every anchor point, and invites the listener to navigate from the passenger seat, all while negotiating a deft balance of tension and release that erupts in raw, downright philosophical horsepower. But always heading somewhere grander than the vessel of expectation can hold."

-Tyran Grillo, Spring 2016

Personnel: Mark Lettieri (guitars) Wes Stephenson (bass) Jason "JT" Thomas (drums and percussion) Shaun Martin (Rhodes, piano and keyboards) Bobby Sparks (keyboards) Milo Deering (pedal steel and fiddle)