By Ed Enright | Published July 2022
San Francisco-based guitarist George Cotsirilos pushes into newer, bluesier and more challenging musical territory on Refuge, a showcase for his recently formed quartet featuring pianist Keith Saunders and Cotsirilo’s longtime trio mates Robb Fisher on bass and Ron Marabuto on drums. The 10 original tunes on this new collection are more complicated than the quartet’s previous release, 2018’s Mostly In Blue, and the arrangements are more exacting, resulting in heightened attention and more acute listening among the musicians. The music bears the stamps of Cotsirilos’ many influences — including straightahead jazz, the blues and classical — and presents a wealth of opportunities in the realms of harmony and rhythm for this auspicious gathering of simpatico players. It’s a nice listen, tuneful and memorable with its plucky leaps and twists. The presence of piano is immediately felt in the head of the swinging, medium-tempo opener “Devolution,” doubling the guitar melody as it steps out on a displaced chromatic climb straight out of the bebop canon. Guitar and piano frequently come across as a team here and throughout Refuge, engaging each other in intelligent and playful ways, Saunders’ generous comping effectively freeing up Cotsirilos’ hands and inspiring the guitarist’s improvisations to new heights of spontaneity and daring. The two also demonstrate that rare ability of two chording instrumentalists to stay out of each other’s way for the full duration of a totally happening, thoughtfully programmed jazz session. Fisher plays multiple melodic roles on upright as well, emerging as an occasional unison voice or engaging in counterpoint with guitar/piano lines, and contributing numerous jazz solos of exquisite substance. Piano is felt deeply on the title track, a jazz waltz based on a subtle harmonic progression laid down by Saunders with exquisite tastefulness. Other album highlights include the spirited “Planet Roxoid,” the ear-perking “The Three Doves” and the minor-key, hard-bopping closer “Let’s Make Break For It.” The compositions on Refuge are deceiving in their complexity, employing unexpected intervals within their undeniably catchy melodic lines and surging with rhythmic tension and release. As with just about everything he touches, Cotsirilos ties it all together with ingenious voice-leading solutions at every turn in this brave-and-brainy collective quest for refuge, written and recorded during the personal isolation and worldwide turmoil of the pandemic era.