On his second CD, a follow-up to the excellent Fresh Sound/New Talent release Not Afraid of Color, electric guitarist Francisco Pais adopts completely different tactics in making original music via a subdued, almost diffident arena. Though the early portion of the recording reflects themes of hope, good humor, and even romanticism, the second half is pensive and even a bit cynical. The enlightenment sought by Pais and his band, featuring saxophonist Chris Cheek, keyboardist Leo Genovese, bassist Peter Slavov, and drummer Ferenc Nemeth, comes across in a manner searching for truth, but almost consumed by loss and hollowed-out emotions. This is not a strange or new phenomenon, but definitely shades the music with a dark grey tinge that suggests cloudy, rainy days and lost love. The recording starts off with the loping groove of "Early Shift," beginning the album as one might start any day slowly, building momentum through breakfast with vocalist Gretchen Parlato's sleepy-headed vocals waking with Cheek's tenor sax. "The Thing with Feathers" also features rising star Parlato in a Flora Purim mode, as an undertow of percussive elements leads to a romantic siren song. "Baron" sports a snaky melody line in 7/8 time as bass, tenor sax, and the guitar of Pais slide though this tune, and Genovese plays a quirky solo on Fender Rhodes.
"Everything Is Something New Somewhere" might not necessarily be true, but musically it's a nice waltz, typically neo-bop with a funky side, and very much contemporary. Pais is a leader more than follower, but is integrated into this band so well that his presence is sometimes unnoticed. Cheek continues to make inroads as one of the finest rising stars in modern music, especially on the soprano sax. The title track exemplifies his virility and unique voicings, as he joins the fuzz-toned Pais for a melody line that demands careful listening to fully appreciate their stark individuality. It's a quick ditty, kinetic and even a bit goofy under a blanket of implied samba rhythms from the incredibly talented Nemeth. Again, Cheek is featured on the free and sweet ballad "Budejovica," where his poignant soprano conjures late-night images of romance realized. Three tunes that bring the mood to a different level are "Tatui" in 5/4, reminiscent of "The End of a Love Affair" with Cheek on tenor sax; the slower "Think Again" with a sad bass solo from guest Demian Cabaud; and the double entendre-titled "You Just Won Another Day with Yourself," which could be either victorious or vindictive, but is musically somber and slowed in nature, indicative of the prevailing theme that haunts this album. A recording that will have to grow on you with more than one listening, School of Enlightenment does not live up to the promise of his debut. It's still a good bet that the third time will be the charm from Pais, who is clearly an original thinker, composer, and contemporary jazz musician.