Hearing someone play the flute usually puts me into a pastoral state of mind. That's probably because of the airy and almost hypnotic sound made by this instrument, which sounds totally different than the other instruments that get played often in western musical forms such as jazz. The saxophone has more of a husky and sensual sound, which is why it has become the instrument of choice for many jazz players. The clarinet has a smoky and melancholy sound. You hear either one of these instruments and the first thing that comes to mind is a dimly lit jazz club.
But when I hear the flute, I think of meadows, flowers, ponds and trees. Perhaps this is because the flute is perhaps the oldest of the woodwind instruments. The flute can be traced back to prehistoric times, whereas the saxophone was invented in the 19th Century. However, the main reason why I get bucolic state of mind whenever I heard a flute is that the sound makes me feel relaxed just like walking through the woods on a spring day.
That perhaps explains why I still find the use of the flute in R&B and jazz to be so shocking. However, as Jef Kearns shows on his album On The Level, this juxtaposition can be shockingly effective. Of course, jazz, R&B and other musical forms get much of their energy when they combine seemingly disparate styles. So, the listener is instantly drawn into a song such as "I Wanna Be The One," where Kearns snakes his flute solos around a hip hop beat complete with programmed drums and a musical conversation between a female singer and a male rapper.
Kearns makes the juxtaposition work on the second track, "Groove Ballad" as well. This song mixes a funk driven rhythm section with Kearns ' flute playing. The song also displays jazz interplay with guitar and keyboard solos interspersed with Kearns using his flute to return to a theme that he established at the opening.
Kearns uses his flute to great effect on the next song, "All Things Gleam," a radio worthy tune in which Kearns seems to engage in a duet with the vocalist Jacen Duncan. Kearns does take his listener to the forest on the next two tracks, "Lavender" and "How Soon," both instrumentals. However, he returns to the funk on the next two tracks, "On The Level," and "Givin U All I Got," with the later being an up-tempo jam that could work as Kearns ' statement that a flutists can rock a little bit as well. "Incomplete" is a spoken word piece in which Kearns again engages in a duet with the vocalist.
Jef Kearns uses a variety of musical tempos to show that the flute is a versatile instrument. He is a creative soloist, but he does not overdo it, and is more than willing to work within a context that includes vocalist, poets and other musicians. On the Level is a recording that has its feet planted firmly in the woods and the hood. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes