Culbertson may have a bit of friendly competition in the young keyboard lions realms with the explosive arrival of 22-year-old J. Michael Verta, whose The Phoenix rises to the challenge presented by cynics who gripe that this genre is more focused on bland compositions than jazz chops. Stylistically, Verta solves these dilemmas on the first three tracks, pushing exotica ("Siren of the Serengeti"), pop/funk with the brassy title track and jazzy piano interludes on "OBC." While no doubt a synth wizard and composer nonpareil, Verta, like David Benoit, will win the respect of openminded purists who take heed of the tantalizing and darting acoustic piano work which lights up on nearly every cut at the most unexpected moments. Like Culbertson a self-contained jack of all talents, Verta is also sharp enough to know when a snazzy sax or acoustic guitar lick will work, and enlists the likes of Boney James and Grant Geissman to startling effect. Plucked out of USC just before he had enough credits to graduate, Verta's got the warrior spirit of a Trojan horse, and, despite a token soul vocal, emerges completely victorious.
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AllMusic Review by Jonathan Widran