San Francisco guitarist Karen Segal offers a particularly free-spirited style of jazz on her latest album, The Mystery of Life. The music is largely inspired by classic guitar jazz and bebop, but Segal has lived, performed, and traveled around the world, so hints of other styles show up throughout the disc. The bouquet of influences makes for a diverse, entertaining instrumental experience that’s likely to appeal to a broad range of listeners.
Backed for most of the session by the bass/drums duo of Perry Thoorsel and Alan Hall, Segal infuses each of her songs with a relaxed, personable tone that lends emotional weight in the absence of vocals. Her playing explores realms familiar and uncharted, as the listener can hear the influence of six-string greats like John Scofield, Mike Stern, and Pat Metheny while also getting to know Segal’s own inventive musical mannerisms. I was reminded of Charlie Hunter more than once while listening – there are times when Segal’s tone and direction bear an uncanny resemblance to Hunter’s mellifluous style.
Though she seems to be most comfortable in mid-tempo bop realms, Segal still manages to neatly incorporate Latin elements, groove-jazz hooks, and other influences that are harder to pin down. “What Goes Around,” for instance, is alive with vaguely eastern melodic touches and dark rhythmic undercurrents, and “Come With Me” showcases her blues-tinged soloing over a flambé of sensual Latin percussion courtesy of Hall and guest percussionist Brian Rice.
Rice also contributes a joyful cuíca introduction to “Lilah Rose,” a song named for Segal’s daughter, and there’s a fanciful, undeniably childlike quality to the song’s shuffling rhythm and playful guitar. “Epiphany (aha!)” is a loosely constructed, sublimely restrained funk number, one of three tracks that feature guest drummer Ricky Carter. Carter also adds his subtle style to the smoky tribute track “Blues For Wes and Kenny,” where he and guest bassist Marcus Shelby lend a classic jazz foundation (and a killer bass solo) to Segal’s timeless playing.
Segal is at her best on simmering, pastoral jazz numbers like “I Believe,” “Moonrise,” “Lost,” and “After the Storm,” where her carefully executed guitar passages can find the perfect space to stretch out and breathe deeply. “Lost” is perhaps the most dynamic and thought-provoking track on the album, with moments of relaxing beauty, striking dissonance, and artful improvisation all found within the confines of one song, though “I Believe” is equally gorgeous. The Mystery of Life should make Segal less of a mystery in the world of jazz, as the album shows that she’s ready for more well-deserved recognition.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10