Rich Halley’s Requiem for a Pit Viper: More of a Party Than a Funeral
Catchy, robust and often boisterous but also extremely erudite, the Rich Halley Quartet’s Requiem for a Pit Viper is one of the most dynamic, entertaining albums of the year in any style of music. It doesn’t sound much like a requiem, either. It references many different eras in jazz, sometimes goes deep into noir and packs a wallop whatever the band is doing. This is one of those albums where it’s obvious how much fun the musicians are having – a close listen reveals two teams at work here, sometimes pulling away from each other to ratchet up the tension. The front line of Halley and trombonist Michael Vlatkovich conspires and banters while the mighty rhythm section of Clyde Reed on bass and Carson Halley (Rich’s son) on drums often takes over center stage. With its fat low end, the production of the album perfectly matches the players. Reed is a muscular, intense, melodic presence in the John Hebert mold, every bit as much a part of the propulsion as the drums. Carson Halley manages to be simultaneously intuitive and counterintuitive: maybe from working with his dad, he’s honed his sense of the unexpected, and an ability to nail a bullseye when the opportunity appears. One current-day ensemble this group resembles is deviously improvisational Bostonians Gypsy Schaeffer. Both bands are completely unpredictable – you never know where their jams are going to end up – and all of this works because these guys have so much fun together.
The title track is a funky, noir, Mingus-esque piece, a couple of chase scenes fueled by the punishing rhythm section, trombone conversing animatedly with whoever/whenever. They get slinky and lowdown on the second track, breezily meandering sax contrasting with ominous drums, a fat bass groove and an irresistibly droll ending. View from the Underpass coalesces slowly out of a crazed, blustery intro, bass figuring heavily in all the tradeoffs. As with the previous track, they can’t resist taking it out on a comedic note. They follow it with the aptly titled, playfully allusive Circumambulation, which hints at everything from a jazz waltz, to swing, to a bolero, Vlatkovich’s brightly terse trombone contrasting with tarpit bass and drums.
Reed rumbles between the horns’ raindrops on a pretty ballad titled Maj, Halley’s smoky, casually warm lines holding down the center as Vlatkovich rides the shoulder warily. They go back to noir with the cinematic swing shuffle Wake Up Line, Halley ambushing Vlatkovich memorably before they finally join forces – and then give way to Reed’s relentless detective work, which finally turns up all the evidence he needs. Squeaker is basically a reggae song carried by the sax, with a brief bass-and-drums break and a trippy, circular bass hook.
A deftly staggered ensemble piece and one of the most entertaining songs here, Subterranean Strut works its way into an approximation of a second line march, quotes a cheesy old disco hit, sends Halley swirling up as the rhythm section very subtly goes doubletime (when’s the last time you ever heard subtle doubletime?) and finally lands in the murk with moody atmospherics. They closed with Afternoon in June, driven by a neat series of bass riffs, and a long sax/trombone conversation that barely hints at the unselfconscious buffoonery the trombone and bass will descend into later on. It’s a fitting way to end this very smart, very amusing album.
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