March 9 2016 01:12 PM

Pat Zelenka embraces spontaneity on new album

Local guitarist Pat Zelenka brings a loose, improvisational energy to his latest album, "The Elm Street Sessions 4/30/14."
Courtesy Photo

As the title suggests, Pat Zelenka’s “The Elm Street Sessions 4/30/14” attempts to capture a musical snapshot, a single night of music making. The result is essentially a jam session caught on tape. This is a knife that cuts both ways.

On one hand, the album is energetic and loose. It captures the excitement of four musicians getting together and jamming on some of their favorite tunes. This session was recorded live in a studio, but it just as easily could have happened in a basement practice space or at one of the bars just down the street.

On the other hand, the album suffers from some classic jam session problems. With a few exceptions, form and structure settle into predictable conventions. First comes the melody, then a guitar solo that builds into a climax before tapering off into a restatement of the melody. Lather, rinse, repeat.

A busy guitarist, Zelenka has been a part of the Lansing music scene for 20 years, playing with several local bands. (“Too many to count,” he says.) About 10 years ago, he formed the Pat Zelenka Project, which has become his primary performing group. Zelenka hosts a weekly open mic at the Colonial Bar and Grill and also performs regularly at Buddies Grill in Holt and Red Cedar Spirits.

The version of the Pat Zelenka Project on this album is essentially a trio: Zelenka on guitar, Michael Swartwood on bass and Nate Woodring on drums. Quentin Leverich joins on percussion for a few tracks.

The album kicks off with Kenny Burrell’s “Chitlins Con Carne.” Zelenka takes this Latin-jazz classic and takes it in a rockier, Santana-esque direction. On this track, as with most of the album, Zelenka takes all melody and soloing duties. While it’s certainly one’s prerogative to highlight oneself on one’s own CD, the result is a texture that is fairly static. Sharing the spotlight a little more would allow the listener to cleanse the sonic palate once in a while.

Next up is Zelenka’s take on “My Favorite Things.” Frankly, I’m surprised anyone still records jazz versions of “My Favorite Things.” The ghost of John Coltrane looms large over this tune. Somehow Trane took a waltzy Rodgers and Hammerstein tune about “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” and turned it into an expansive minor-key meditation.

Zelenka turns in a relaxed, lounge-y version of the tune, simultaneously avoiding the traps of falling short of Coltrane’s grand proclamation and the syrupiness that catches versions that stick closer to the original. Zelenka’s guitar work is sensitive and introspective. The tempo steadily increases as the intensity of the solo builds, and by the time the melody returns, the tune has lost the relaxing vibe it started with. The looseness of the jam session strikes again.

Next up is a pair of original tunes, “Hipshot” and Patrick Je Blues,” both written by Zelenka. “Hipshot” starts with a conga solo by Leverich, which is a nice change of pace. The tune itself is built on a single riff that is carried by the bass for nearly the entire tune. At about three minutes in, when the repetitiveness of the riff becomes almost too much to bear, the bass drops out to give way to a second conga solo, followed by a drum set solo that leads into the ending guitar solo. “Patrick Je Blues” is a swampy, shuffling blues that Zelenka milks for all it’s worth.

Zelenka’s take on “All Blues” is probably the most fun track on the album. Miles Davis purists will certainly shutter at the thought of turning Davis’ floating 6/8 blues into a funky 4/4 romp, but it works surprisingly well.

The next track is another gem, a cover of “Cissy Strut.” The tune was originally written by the Meters, a tragically underappreciated proto-funk band that flirted with mainstream success in the 1960s and ‘70s. Zelenka’s version pushes aside the New Orleans second line vibe of the original and pushes it into a jazz fusion direction. The tune also features the only solo turn from Swartwood, who takes a tonally adventurous bass solo.

The album concludes with “Villanova Junction.” Zelenka takes the stormy Jimi Hendrix blues tune and turns it into a smoky, introspective number that builds to a simmering climax.

Zelenka is clearly a seasoned guitarist who has done his homework. Glimpses of guitar legends like B.B. King, Santana and even John McLaughlin show up in his style. It’s not cheap mimicry, but rather the absorbing of these artists’ traits into his own style.

The album is also another strong showing for producer Ryan Wert and Elm Street Studios, where the album was recorded. The guitar tones are gritty without being overly distorted, and the drums, bass and percussion are present without getting in each other’s way.

This type of album is great for lounging around the house. Turn up the stereo, crack open a beer and pretend you’re at a bar somewhere soaking up the sound. Then when it gets warmer, maybe try to catch Zelenka on a patio somewhere.