Slumgum: Perennially Dark and Cutting-Edge
Old paradigm: albums get buried in the stack or maybe get stolen. New paradigm: albums get lost on the server or accidentally deleted. Los Angeles jazz quartet Slumgum definitely belong to the new paradigm, so it’s only fitting that’s what happened here as far as their album Qardboard Flavored Fiber is concerned (it came over the transom almost a year ago). But good records stand the test of time, and this one’s no less fun or paradigm-shifting now than it was then.
Slumgum defies categorization. Aware of jazz history but not constrained by it, committed to improvisation but not constrained by that either, the band mixes an impressively eclectic series of clever cross-genre tropes with vivid cinematics that often venture into totally noir territory: Sam Fuller movie themes in color for a new century. A suite titled Big Fun, which ranges from apprehensive free improvisation, to latin, to third-stream themes, runs through the album and opens it on a chilly, spacious note, Rory Cowal’s icy, Ran Blake-inflected piano mingling with Dave Tranchina’s terse bass incisions and scraping ambience, Jon Armstrong’s tenor sax adding wary atmospherics. They follow that with the Lynchian Hancho Pancho, Cowal’s echoey Rhodes intertwining with Armstrong, who builds to a smoky, terrified crescendo over Tranchina’s molten pitchblende chords. The way they manage to take it out with an unexpected grace is one of the high points of the album.
Big Fun (New Ruckus) is a warped salsa jazz tune that coalesces slowly and then falls apart twice as fast, the band leaving everything to the bass and drummer Trevor Anderies’ unexpectedly blithe rimshots. A mini-epic, Eshu’s Trick morphs playfully from a clave groove to darkly Ethiopian-tinged sonics with striking light/dark contrasts between sax and drums – and is Armstrong playing baritone and alto at the same time, or is that an overdub? Either way, the harmonies are an unexpected treat. They end it with a very cool, psychedelic reggae-jazz interlude that turns nebulous and polyrhythmic. Big Fun (Street Puddle Rainbow), which follows, is a pretty, third-stream after-the-rain vignette, making a good segue with Afternoon, the most trad piece here, driven by Cowal’s expansively warm, stately melodicism.
Big Fun (Liberation) is surprisingly tentative and gentle, Tranchina’s judicious solo bass bookending quiet, pensive sax and piano incisions. The high point of the album, and one of the most stunning jazz compositions of recent years, is the title track, a rollercoaster ride that alternates a devious, baritone sax funk riff with Cowal’s rippling, Schumannesque arpeggios and runs up and then all the way down the piano, adding brooding chromatics and shortening the distance between horror and comedy as the song goes on. It ends unresolved. Big Fun (Buzzsaw Flower Blossom) reverts to slowly crescendoing, Ran Blake-ish intensity, also mining a pretty/ugly dichotomy but with considerably more humor. A rather cruel lounge-jazz satire, Puce over Pumpkin with a Hint of Lime builds from a tricky circular piano/sax circularity to a coldly suspenseful, martial interlude before they swing it, Cowal going totally noir, Armstrong leading the band all the way up before the wheels all fall off, one by one. Cowal ends it on an especially lurid/icy note. And that’s how they end the album, with the creepy tone poem Big Fun (The Bellows), Anderies’ whispery cymbals growing to a succession of waves as the sax and bass rise tectonically against it – a call for help in a storm, maybe? Whatever the case, count this as one of the most entertainingly intense jazz albums of recent months, irrespective of when it might have come out.