Conceived as a sound portrait for an imaginary movie, James Carney's music on Ways & Means takes on a new style beyond the acoustic pianist's reputation as a thoroughly modern jazz composer and performer. Teamed with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, saxophonist Peter Epstein, and trombonist Josh Roseman in his front line, Carney wends his way through these tricky tracks with more and more electronic additive, including an analog synthesizer and Fender Rhodes piano. Though some of the music here is purely improvised, most is composed for fantasy scenarios with specific themes in mind, all played to perfection by this dynamic and wholly professional ensemble. Carney's compositions have always been incredibly clever, creative, and unique, but here he takes it to a new and even more artistic level. "Squatters," at over 13 minutes, is as inventive as developed, involved progressive jazz gets considering the title, while he changes it up on the sneaky rock tune "Legal Action" letting Alessi and Epstein's saxophone off on a rambling mission. Contrasting even further, "Onondaga" is a spacious, spatial, electronic-based piece, pulsing amid acoustic instruments also trying to have their viewpoint heard. Many shorter themes span free improvisation, quirky spiral constructs, or in the case of "Gargoyles," a pretty epilogue coda with Carney's acoustic piano in tribute to his recently deceased drummer Dan Morris. The stellar rhythm team of bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Mark Ferber anchors the group every step of the way, no matter how lighthearted, spiky, or complex the pieces are. Conceived to be heard in one sitting from start to finish, listeners will find many individual stretches of brilliance from Carney and his group, an excellent recording just like all his others.
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AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos