Smart Balkan-Tinged Tunesmithing and Improvisation from the Ben Holmes Quartet
Trumpeter Ben Holmes’ Quartet is one of those great bands that defies categorization. Rhythmically, they are most defnitely a jazz group; melodically, they encompass everything from Balkan music, to klezmer, to a cinematic sensibility, with plenty of improvisation and elements of both the high Romantic and the avant garde. Over the past couple of years, what began as a trio has expanded to a a quartet with trombonist Curtis Hasselbring (who’s got a typically wry, witty album of his own due out momentarily from Cuneiform), Matt Pavolka on bass and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums.The group’s album Anvil of the Lord – Holmes’ second as a leader, just out from Skirl - doesn’t hammer anywhere near as hard as the the title suggests, but it is a mighty intriguing listen. Holmes has a fondness for shuffle beats along with impeccable tonal control, from an ambered gleam to rustic and gravelly, depending on context, adding tantalizing Eastern European spice to his warmly expansive melodies. Throughout the album, improvisation is drivem by a commitment to judicious exploration rather than anything remotely approaching a squawking free-for-all.
A Doodle For Rhapsody, a pensively altered klezmer shuffle anchored by Pavolka’s insistently suspenseful pedalpoint and tense, terse rising lines opens the album. Hasselbring brings a characteristic wryly bubbling touch to his firsr solo, shadowing Holmes on the way out. Magic Mondays waltzes along casually, Sperazza taking charge as the horn harmonies fall away for a similarly matter-of-fact, lyrical Holmes solo. The deceptively catchy Moving Like A Ghost shuffles and slips between minors and majors, with a transluscent, crystalline solo from Holmes, Pavolka’s restless bounce underpinning the horns’ moodily rising lines and Sperrazza’s misterioso cymbals.
Kingston isn’t a reggae song but a rather wistful waltz, Holmes using just the faintest touch of a mute as he shifts from pensive to assertive, the band swirling up a stew as Hasselbring brings in southern-tinged heat. It’s one of many instances where holding the center is left to the bass while Sperrazza supplies color, in this case a nebulous cymbal ambience.
Otessianek hints at bossa nova as Pavolka and Hasselbring come together and then methodically take it into livelier klezmer territory over a hypnotic bass vamp. The title track opens with a tongue-in-cheek, effervescent bass solo and then an animated duel from the horns as Sperrazza kicks the smoke machine into high gear.
The moody, atmospheric ballad Malach Hamovi has Pavolka channeling Chopineque morosity with his stately, tiptoeing lines, Sperrazza bringing the shuffle back via a sardonic march. Song For Creel Thompson is a rather austere midtempo swing number; the album ends with Nada Vs Armitage, the rhythm section walking the line between suspense and swing: and then the band goes for it wholehog with the nonchalant determination that permeates this expertly crafted collection. Holmes’ next gig with this unit is on March 12 at 7 PM at Barbes, setting the stage for Slavic Soul Party’s mighty brass assault.
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