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The cheer that defines Serrano's friendships also satures his writing, The second track here, Siempre Gitano, evolved recently while Serrano was working at an elegant Italian bistro in La Costa, California–Tuscany. The propulsive drive of the tune's motion carries a flamenco feeling. One of the attributes that marks Jose Serrano's musical outlook can be discerned on this song. As a composer, Serrano does not aim to dazzle listeners or fellow musicians with abstractions and logistical complexity. He strives for immediacy and directness. Serrano's compositions are varied in their influences and tonal colors, but they all share one open hearted "hail fellow well-met" sense of human warmth.

The musical attributes that most define Only by Grace are the cohesiveness of its execution along with the integrity of movement from song to song across the album's reach. Only by Grace is a genuinely realized, well orchestrated ensamble of strong musicians and affirmative compositions. There is nothing trivial, cute, deformed, or self-conscious about this album. And yet the music is layered and deeply constructed. Its fundamental notations (its musical directions) and its assemblage of sounds are tightly wrought. We live in an era in which the search for "difference" results in a repetition of the familiar.

There are song in this album that remind us of melodies and riffs we have heard elsewhere, but the essential shape of Only by Grace if crafted by Serrano's capacity to transform inherited musical ideas to his own version.

A note about the musicians who make Only by Grace romp across the best part of a well-spent hour.

 

Pianist/percussionist Allan Phillips is a remarkable composer in his own right. He has arranged the joyful festivity of El Borlo (The Party). His playing is integral to the album's success.

Trombonist Michael Dessen is a musician with rare chops. One hears the fire and suave intensity of the late Frank Rosolino in his playing. Dessen lends himself to El Borlo and Away From Home.

Bassist Peter Skrabak and drumer Cesar Lozano from one-half of Jaime Valle's EQUINOX quartet. Their playing is solid, cheerful, and underviating with enthusiasm throughout. Percussionist Tommy Aros and bassist Kevin Hennessey contribute their confident energy. Guitarist Hank Easton can be heard on the solo at the end of Siempre Gitano.

As it should be, Jose Serrano's acoustic and electrical guitars stand from and center here. The star of this album, however, is the compositional openness that allows a wealth of powerful music to emerge. Only by Grace is a fun session. It is music to "blow the blues away," as Horace Silver often noted.

"My outlook is fairly straightforward," Serrano asserts. "I have no regrets. This is the album I wanted to make. It is where I am now and what I've created after years of doing it all. At any rate, I remember what (baseball great) Satchell Paige used to say ... 'Don't look back. Somebody might be gaining on you.' That sums it up for me."

– Jim Merod, Blueport Sound