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Royal Toast, the most recent release by the innovative small jazz group The Claudia Quintet, doesn’t need me to rave about them; they’ve been getting a lot of well-deserved praise for the album already. But it belongs in this conversation because, more than any other album that I’ve heard this year, it beats Mehldau at his own game.
As some of you have pointed out, most of these CDs that I have written about this week are hard to compare to Mehldau’s latest project — they have different aims, different sounds, different frames for understanding the music. I don’t think Trombone Shorty, for example, will be applying for a Chamber Music America grant any time soon (although I would LOVE to be on that selection committee!)
Mehldau’s record, with its overt orchestral borrowings and dark, brooding ambiance, is clearly taking himself very seriously. After all, he’s got to show something for the fact that he’s this year’s Carnegie Hall Composer-in-Residence. The result is a high-minded, high-budget affair that fits perfectly for a big-budget arts institution like SFJAZZ, J@LC or Festival Productions.
Musically speaking, Royal Toast excels by all of those same standards, only Hollenbeck’s group manages to imbue them with a playful vitality that Highway Rider seems to be missing. Furthermore, Hollenbeck manages more timbral intrigue with a six-instrument palate (Chris Speed on woodwinds, Matt Moran on vibraphone, Drew Gress on bass, Hollenbeck on drums, Ted Reichman on accordion and Gary Versace as a special guest on piano) than Mehldau and Brion manage with seemingly unlimited resources.
Suffice it to say that I can’t wait to hear what this eccentric ensemble comes up with next. I can’t think of many better models for how to create innovative, exciting jazz in the 21st century.
Backatown, the latest release from New Orleans brass prodigy Trombone Shorty (aka Troy Andrews,) takes the explosive musical milieu of New Orleans to a new level, bringing New Orleans jazz, funk and whatever else goes on down there into a sound he calls “supaphunkrock.” The result is an intensely funky party album that manages to be both immensely entertaining and musically fascinating.
If the tracks on this record don’t make your body move, there’s something seriously wrong with you. The whole album oozes exuberant musical energy, from the opening track’s brass riffs (“Hurricane Season”) through the heavy metal guitar and drum beat of the final number, “The Cure.”
Although it features a spate of impressive musical guests including Lenny Kravitz and Allen Toussaint, Backatown is at its best when it features Andrews as a soloist, as on “Suburbia,” “Backatown” and “The Cure.” He rarely strays from his deeply blues-inflected melodic vocabulary, but he never has to. As with funk trombone godfather Fred Wesley, the groove speaks for itself. Unlike Wesley, though, he projects one of the ballsiest trombone sounds I have heard on record, yet he manages to convey it with a clear, focused tone.
Like A Vacant Lot, many jazz fans wouldn’t classify this music as jazz. Even my girlfriend was very surprised to hear this coming through my living room speakers (even better, she dug it!) Produced by Galactic funkateer Ben Ellman, the overall sound owes much more to R&B and funk than jazz. But between Andrews’s instrumental virtuosity, the interlocking instrumental riffs, improvised solos and the propulsive rhythmic drive throughout, there’s a lot here for a jazz fan to like.
On the surface, A Vacant Lot by The Inhabitants looks like a bizarre, eff-you DIY punk project–that was my reaction, at least, when opening the album to put the CD into my car stereo. The black-and-white album cover features a weird wolf-crow spiderman thing, no liner notes and a font that might have come from the credits to a zombie movie. I expected an assault of distortion and angularity, no holds barred.
What actually transpired, though, was quite different. The quartet–which features JP Carter on trumpet, Skye Brooks on drums, Pete Schmitt on bass and Dave Sikula on guitar–creates a stunningly unpredictable ambiance that ebbs and flows in a way that moves the ear easily along with it. The assault does come occasionally, such as in the beginning of “Let Youth Be Saved,” but is only a small part of the group’s musical palette.
To call this music jazz might be a bit of a stretch–the group does utilize a recognizably rockish aesthetic. But it fits, swaying from pounding drums and distorted guitars to rubato, ambient ruminations. The loose articulation and patient transitions between sections create beautiful musical tension that is usually resolved by blending subtly into new material. And clearly, the spontaneity and melodic contours of some of the songs owe themselves to a jazz-inspired tradition.
A Vacant Lot conveys bold, raw and forthright creativity. This group is still on their way up, for sure–once they incorporate ways of better dealing with some of the more repetitive aspects of the songs to keep things interesting, I can their concept really taking off. Keep your eye out for these guys–we might be looking at the next group of Vancouver imports to the New York scene, now that BC jazz pioneers like Ingrid Jensen and Darcy James Argue seem to be making themselves comfortable here …
A good jazz duo record is hard to pull off, but Ben Monder and Bill McHenry are certainly up to the task with their recent release, Bloom. Their musical dialogue conjures the edgy spontaneity of great improvisation, whether sprawling through the drones of the title track or navigating the crunchy distortion of “Ice Fields.”
The record can be a bit challenging at times because of the lack of rhythmic drive, but the long phrasing and angular saxophone lines work because of the way that the two weave together larger melodic arcs.
Guitarist Ben Monder sets the tone of the songs with his intricate electric guitar wizardry, laying a foundation over which McHenry’s saxophone glides melodically. It’s not actually that different from what one would expect from a sax-and-guitar duo, only there seem to be no chord changes or functional harmony. Instead, the two dance within a more ambiguous framework of timbral and dynamic shifts that move subtly within each song and between tracks. McHenry takes the lead in a few places, such as the beginning of “Heliogabalus” (that was fun to type) where his aggressive chromatic passages and brash punctuations give way as Monder slides in quietly underneath him.
Taken together, these conversations provide a display of virtuosic and intimate improvised music. Although a clear departure from tonality and functional harmony, Monder and McHenry’s record is exciting, moving and oddly mystifying. I’ve had to find myself in the right mood to listen to it, but when I have really been able to dig in, it has taken my ear in some surprising new directions.
Ever since the release of Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown in 1999, there has been a blossoming of interest in the music of the late jazz guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt. A number of ensembles have sprung up paying homage to Reinhardt’s Hot Club of France: from the Hot Club of Philly to the Hot Club of Cowtown.
The Hot Club of Detroit stands out because, more than any other Gypsy Jazz spinoff, they treat Reinhardt’s music as a part of the jazz tradition. As my friend Paul Brady–who plays rhythm guitar for the group–has argued here before, this is an under-appreciated aspect of Reinhardt’s legacy. Their latest release, It’s About That Time, continues this project admirably.
The group consists of Evan Perri on lead guitar, Julien Labro on accordion, Carl Cafagna on sax and clarinet, Andrew Kratzat on bass and Brady on rhythm guitar. The unusual instrumentation allows for clever exploration of the Gypsy Jazz repertoire: the title track, for example, is a mashup of Reinhardt’s Heavy Artillerie with the Miles Davis classic. The group also borrows from source material beyond the Gypsy Jazz canon–take their 5/4-grooving cover of Charles Mingus’s “Nostalgia in Times Square,” bouncing with the same aplomb of Reinhardt’s music from 75 years ago.
The original compositions on the album reflect a similar quality. The opening track, “On the Steps,” mixes Reinhardt’s emblematic up-tempo virtuosity with Coltrane-inspired harmony, to great effect. As with Crump’s Reclamation, this project conveys a clear musical message: a combination of contemporary-leaning innovation and deep roots in the jazz tradition.
Most music consumption these days is digital, but you might want to get a hard copy of this CD, as it features liner notes by the esteemed jazz writer and historian Dan Morgenstern, a nice bonus that places The Hot Club of Detroit even more deeply into dialogue with the music’s past.