Label: Nonesuch Records
"Sam Gendel’s ascension to beloved ambient-jazz savant has been fueled, in part, by the inexhaustibility of his output. His prolific catalog foams with free-improv sessions, bedroom recordings, a three-and-a-half-hour archive dump, and a bevy of collaborative projects showcasing his stuttering guitar playing and wistful, narcotic approach to the saxophone. A limber, unselfconscious sense of intuition runs through his many detours and discursions, and his work consistently blurs the line between conception and completion. In Gendel’s world, meaning emerges amid limitless swells of sound. “Putting out a ‘normal’ album just doesn’t work for me,” he said recently. “I’m more interested in throwing ideas out and seeing where the ceiling is.”
Gendel’s newest release is a covers album in which he reimagines R&B hits from the ’90s and early ’00s, a framework that provides him and collaborators Phil Melanson and Gabe Noel a remarkable amount of freedom inside seemingly fixed structures. With his woozy, wandering saxophone anchoring the record’s soothing soundscapes, Gendel interprets songs by Aaliyah, Erykah Badu, Boyz II Men, and others with a lucid and improvisational touch, bending them into almost unrecognizable shapes. It’s an engaging albeit low-stakes effort from an artist unafraid to splatter fresh paint across a familiar canvas.
Gendel’s no stranger to putting his own spin on classic songs. In 2020 he released Satin Doll, an album where he repurposed jazz standards in his own upside-down fashion. He treats the tracks on Cookup in a similar way, maintaining the melodic integrity of his source material while also revealing foreign tones and textures. On “Differences,” his insouciant horn takes liberties refashioning Ginuwine’s vocal runs as Noel’s bass undergirds the rhythm and Melanson’s electronic percussion squeezes into tight pockets. Another highlight is his impressionistic take on Mario’s “Let Me Love You,” where Gendel’s dazzling sax work stretches the track’s melodic core to its furthest limits.
The album is less persuasive when songs adhere too closely to their original forms. There’s a rush of gratification when “Crazy in Love” and “Didn’t Cha Know” appear, but the cleanness of the renditions makes them feel like your average, capable cover song, ones you might hear while walking past a street performance or scrolling through TikTok. Gendel’s virtuosity announces itself more forcefully when he veers into weirdness, like on a deranged, sputtering take of Soul for Real’s “Candy Rain,” or when eerie forest sounds surround his celestial playing on “In Those Jeans.” This messy fingerpainting suits Gendel’s loose and instinctual style better than mimesis. Cookup soars when the players’ interpretations converge into new creations, and the source material becomes a portal to a new dimension. The vestiges of old melody may remain, but Gendel’s best reimaginings illuminate subtle resonances and hidden pleasures." Pitchfork