Sam Gendel: Cookup Album Review

Sam Gendel’s ascension to beloved ambient-jazz savant has been fueled, in part, by the inexhaustibility of his output. His prolific catalog is packed with free jam sessions, bedroom recordings, a three-and-a-half hour archival dump, and a bevy of collaborative projects showcasing his stuttering guitar playing and melancholic, narcotic approach to the saxophone. . A nimble and carefree sense of insight runs through his many detours and discussions, and his work constantly blurs the line between conception and completion. In Gendel’s world, meaning emerges amid limitless swells of sound. “Releasing a ‘normal’ album just doesn’t work for me,” he said recently. “I’m more interested in pitching ideas and seeing where the ceiling is.”

Gendel’s most recent release is a covers album in which he reimagines R&B hits from the ’90s and early ’00s, a framework that gives him and his collaborators Phil Melanson and Gabe Noel a remarkable amount of freedom within apparently fixed structures. With his dizzy, wandering saxophone anchoring the record’s soothing soundscapes, Gendel interprets songs by Aaliyah, Erykah Badu, Boyz II Men and others with a lucid, improvisational edge, bending them in almost unrecognizable shapes. It’s an engaging, if low-stakes effort from an artist who isn’t afraid to splatter fresh paint onto a familiar canvas.

Gendel is no stranger to putting his own spin on classic songs. In 2020 he released satin doll, an album in which he reused jazz standards in his own backwards way. He treats the tracks in Cook similarly, maintaining the melodic integrity of his source material while revealing uncanny tones and textures. On “Differences,” his carefree trumpet takes liberties reshaping Ginuwine’s vocals while Noel’s bass underpins the beat and Melanson’s electronic percussion gets into tight pockets. Another highlight is his impressionistic version of Mario’s “Let Me Love You,” where Gendel’s dazzling saxophone work pushes the track’s melodic core to its most extreme limits.

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The album is less persuasive when the songs stick too closely to their original forms. There’s a rush of gratification when “Crazy in Love” and “Didn’t Cha Know” come on, but the cleanliness of the renditions makes them feel like an average, capable cover of a song that you might listen to while walking past a street performance or you scroll through TikTok. Gendel’s virtuosity is most strongly announced when he veers into weirdness, as in a crackling, sizzling version of Soul for Real’s “Candy Rain,” or when the eerie sounds of the forest surround his heavenly rendition on “In That Jeans.” This messy finger painting is better suited to Gendel’s loose and instinctive style than mimesis. Cook it rises when players’ interpretations converge into new creations, and the source material becomes a portal to a new dimension. Vestiges of the old tune may remain, but Gendel’s best reinventions illuminate subtle resonances and hidden delights.

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Sam Gendel: cook

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