Chuck Lichtenberger (perhaps best known as the keys player in local pop group stephaniesid) is not exactly new on the scene. His own jazz project, the Chuck Lichtenberger Collective, has played a standing Tuesday night gig at Tressa's for the last couple years and boasts a stellar lineup: Michael Libramento (Floating Action, Ice Cream) on bass, Joey K. (Ozomatli) on drums and Jonathan "J.P." Pearlman (Alien Music Club) on guitar. The band sometimes involves other instrumentalists, but during a rare Sunday night set at Barley's it was that quartet on stage.
If the jazz genre strikes fear in the heart of some would-be music fans, Lichtenberger's group is probably the place to start. Not that the compositions lack sophistication, but each song is tempered with pop themes and catchy hooks —exactly the stuff that makes stephaniesid so addictive. Following one tune, Lichtenberger pointed out that Pearlman had played a Kenny Loggins-style lick. "You weren't allowed to make a movie in the '80s without a Kenny Loggins song on the soundtrack," he quipped. But more than '80s-retro, the song possessed an upbeat, rollicking refrain that called to mind a Vince Guaraldi composition.
That song was followed by an equally poppy (though less Peanuts soundtrack-y) number. The musicians' skills allow for textural layers, and through those layers rise intriguing solos. In experimental jazz, it's these solos that sometimes lose the unschooled listener — musicians use the time to leap from the musical foundation into uncharted and often dissonant territory. In this case, Pearlman's solo was more obscure than the highly accessible keyboard refrain, but also served as a jumping off point for Libramento who offered up a moody, syncopated bass part. (Libramento, it's worth noting, is a left-handed musician who plays a right-handed bass upside down.) Lichtenberger brought the whole song back around with a breezy, oceanic swell of keys; his pop-savvy the key element that allowed the rest of the band to take the music into intense and experimental territory without losing the interest of the pizza and beer crowd.
Each number involves a play of light and dark elements and though Lichtenberger — an engaging frontman with practiced audience rapport — jokes "One good thing about leading a band is you can write stuff you can't play and other people will play it for you," it's obvious that there's no weak link in this group. Frequent time changes are pulled off like so many turns on dimes. Warm tones and nods to swing jazz recall plusher economic times and cast an expansive and jovial mood into the bar. Complex solos (including, on the Barley's stage, a guest appearance by steel drummer Jonathan Scales), a veritable cornucopia of rhythms (including an especially pleasing jungle-beat opening a newer arrangement) and a full spectrum of emotional states, means the compositions are challenging without departing the happy bubble.
Learn more at www.myspace.com/chucklichtenberger