Javier Santiago’s New Ropeadope Album ‘B-Sides: The Phoenix Sessions’ Reviewed

It cannot be said that Javier Santiago plays the keys without a sense of lyricism and tension. It cannot be said that Santiago doesn’t compose songs with powerful arcs that don’t let go. In his Ropeadope debut last year, Phoenix, Javier Santiago did this all over, and he did it as a jazz fusion masterpiece, but that may have been due to the tools used for the job, leaning more on the Fender Rhodes or synths than on the acoustic piano. But at that same time, with those same players, he also recorded songs just as brilliant and with that same energy, but these songs are primarily performed on acoustic piano.

These are songs that are more straight-ahead in bent than the more fusion-oriented songs that made up 2018’s Phoenix; they were, however, recorded in the same sessions. They have that same soaring energy that the predecessor had but this album isn’t trying to be the soundtrack of your favorite acid trips of 2019, this album is the soft landing.

Take, for example, “A Day in the Life of a Tree”– a lovely tune in trio for Santiago to glide about easily but ever not so easily while Zach Brown is killing on the bass and Corey Fonville is slaughtering with no abandon on the drums. It’s a simple tune that has so much space for all the chops while maintaining that sense of ease. It’s easy to get drawn into Santiago’s songs because he always writes songs that are easy for the ear to follow, even when they’re cloying with their off-times or sudden shifts. His compositions are like stories– they have certain markers of what must be said whenever retelling the story, but there’s just so much room for everyone involved to elaborate on various details and make the story come alive. One would think this is an obvious element in all of songwriting, but something about Santiago makes this more apparent. Maybe it’s knowing just where to put Nir Felder, like on “Nocturne Du Romare” which he totally runs away with the moment he shows up and it’s absolutely perfect. Maybe it’s it’s the touch of Greg Byers’ strings on “Fearless” that gives an additional feel of regality to the whole shebang. Maybe it’s the perfect balance of Dayna Stephens and Ben Flocks on tenor and soprano saxophones throughout that can work in the conventional soloing slots, like on “Resilience”, a tune with the fortitude of its namesake, but can also find those moments to do the unconventional with that same sense of ease.

There’s a calm and a charm here. His pulled back arrangement of the Amaury Acosta tune, “For Unity” makes a song that already soars and lets it simply glide. The playfulness he gives to closer “Beautiful Love” feels akin to the whole vibe he’s given for the whole album. If there is a signature as a voice as an artist, Santiago is saying so here in B-Sides: The Phoenix Sessions, at least for that moment in time in 2016. He’s undoubtedly somewhere else musically on the West Coast, making new sounds as the easygoing storyteller, but with this release, we can all know this current title to be true.

B-Sides: The Phoenix Sessions, the second Ropeadope album from pianist/keyboardist Javier Santiago, is out now. Stream it below in its entirety.

Javier Santiago – Piano, Fender Rhodes, Organ, Synth
Corey Fonville – Drums
Zach Brown – Upright Bass
Nir Felder – Electric Guitar on tracks 2, 3, 5, 6, 8,10
Dayna Stephens – Tenor Sax on track 3 and Soprano Sax on tracks 2, 6, 8, 10
Ben Flocks – Tenor Sax on tracks 2, 3, 8, 10 and Soprano Sax on tracks 7, 9
Greg Byers – Violin, Viola and Cello on track 6