When an artist from a musical outpost gets national attention, the positive effects can reverberate long after their songs fall off the charts. For example, my hometown of Buffalo, New York continues to benefit from the late-’90s rise of the long-since-irrelevant Goo Goo Dolls. (Music Is Art, a nonprofit founded by Dolls bassist Robby Takac, has been supporting music education in Buffalo since 2003.) Similarly, saxophonist Jason Ward is continuing to make a positive impact on Maine long after his band, Rustic Overtones, made a national splash. As Director of Music at Saint Dominic Academy, in Auburn, Ward is leveraging his musical pedigree to make our state a culturally richer place. And Ward certainly isn’t done making his own music. His debut solo LP, The Ultimate, shows off his chops as a blower and bandleader, his unfussy baritone sax runs providing stable footing for a group of local ringers that includes trumpeter Emma Stanley and fellow Overtone Dave Gutter on guitar. For the most part, The Ultimate is a background party album, a collection of inoffensive funk instrumentals that will give Rustic fans a taste of the old magic. The nuanced rhythms of a funk arrangement don’t highlight Ward’s strengths. He’s a rock player. On “Rhyme or Reason,” guest vocalist Andrew Yankowsky grabs the spotlight until Ward steals it back with some focused, irresistible, stabbing notes. He knows exactly how to use his horn to elevate this kind of song. Next time, I hope he steals a page from the Santana playbook: team up with a series of gifted vocalists, and teach them a thing or two.
— Joe Sweeney