Try!, the third live release from pop-guitarist John Mayer, features the John Mayer Trio. With drummer, Steve Jordan and bassist, Pino Paladino, Mayer swerves into the realm of jazz, which he, a classically trained guitarist, has a long, oft forgotten affinity for. Jordan and Paladino have worked with everyone from James Brown to Phil Collins and D’Angelo. To say the very least, Mayer is in good company.

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The three dance around each other, filling in the musical gaps with astonishing clarity of purpose. It is the dynamic of a jazz group with a rock vocabulary – a tribute to the timeless trio format of acts like Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Police.

From the first few bars of the opening track, “Who Did You Think I Was,” it is clear that if nothing else, this album will showcase a rawer, funkier side of Mayer. In this song, which follows his trend of cocky, self-conscious songs like “No Such Thing” and “Bigger Than My Body,” Mayer anticipates critics of his “new” artistic direction by asking, “Who did you think I was?”

Fans understand the implication. Mayer’s first years on the guitar were spent mimicking the late blues guitar god, Stevie Ray Vaughn, among others. Aware fans have likely picked that up from the highly derivative guitar solos in his live performances.

On Try! these influences are abundantly clear. “Out of My Mind” is an original track, but derives from slow, dirty, behind-the-beat blues tunes. “Another Kind of Green,” is slightly closer to typical John Mayer songs, but is right out of the Hendrix school of rhythm guitar. The trio even covers the Hendrix tune, “Wait Until Tomorrow.”

Though they play the hell out of each of these songs, the musicianship is futile without an interesting context. The most compelling songs are those without multiple guitar solos. “Gravity” is a poignant ballad in which Mayer channels a Martin Sexton vocal nuance. On “Vultures,” Mayer struts over a “Billie Jean”-inspired beat and bassline with the bouncy electric guitar approach he honed on his last studio album, Heavier Things. It’ll be interesting to see how these new songs flesh out on his next studio release, Continuum, scheduled for release in early 2006.

For that, one would hope Mayer realizes it’s great that he plays with his heart and soul, but it’s much more interesting when he uses his mind. For now, however, it’s pretty exciting to hear a pop star with enough talent to shoot from the hip. This isn’t Mayer’s freshest release, but it just might be the most honest.

 

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

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