Album Review: Wave Cage — ‘The Portrait’ EP

Wave Cage — a local band made up of Jarrett Purdy on keys and synths; Ryan Garmoe on flugelhorn and electronics; Nolan Schroeder on saxophone and electronics; and Christopher Jensen on drums — describes itself in a couple of ways.

In an email to Little Village, co-leader Purdy calls the ensemble a “jazz/fusion/electronic band.” On the band’s YouTube channel, it says, “Wave Cage fuses jazz composition with electronic textures.”

The band’s debut recording, The Portrait EP, bears these descriptions out. But it also brings to mind a more succinct genre descriptor: smooth jazz.

It’s possible that the members of Wave Cage simply don’t think about the band in those terms. But it is equally possible that they’ve made a conscious choice to avoid the moniker because, it must be said, “smooth jazz” is a divisive term. For many a jazz fan, smooth jazz doesn’t qualify as jazz at all. In many cases, the music might more accurately be described as instrumental pop. A jazz purist might well be heard using “smooth jazz” as nothing short of an epithet.

That is decidedly not how I am using it here.

Let me be clear: The Portrait EP is an engaging, atmospheric, beautifully produced and occasionally humorous recording. If you like saxophonist David Sanborn or trumpeter Chris Botti, you will like The Portrait EP. If you like guitarist Pat Matheny’s “Last Train Home,” you will like this recording. If you like your jazz to be driven by melody and can take or leave long sections of improvisation, you will like The Portrait EP.

Part of the credit for the EP’s success clearly goes to Jensen who, in addition to playing the drums, recorded, mixed and mastered the recording. The recording is lush and warm, and the frequent effects — most notably reverb — put on the instruments are handled tastefully and add to rather than distract from the musicians’ playing.

And that playing is strong throughout the four tracks on the recording. In the absence of a bass player, Purdy is frequently the pulse of the band (though in spots, Jensen offers a prominent and straightforward drumbeat). Meanwhile, Garmoe and Schroeder blend beautifully, whether a passage calls for warm-toned exploration of a melody or technical proficiency.

My favorite track on the recording is “Level Up,” which is to video games what “Last Train Home” is to trains. “Level Up” is a whimsical take on video game soundtracks, complete with the familiar synth sound from the Mario Brothers games. As the energy ramps up, it is easy to imagine the track as a slightly off-kilter take on the celebratory music that might follow the defeat of the final boss. It might sound as though I am describing a novelty number, but I’m confident “Level Up” will hold up even for the listener who has never experienced the joys of finding coins and rescuing princesses with Mario and Luigi.

EPs are the appetizer plates of the recording world. Here’s hoping The Portrait EP will soon be followed by a full entrée of music from Wave Cage.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 294.

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