Energetic, Eclectic, Haunting Sounds from the Jason Seed Stringtet
While echoes of Django Reinhardt and Astor Piazzolla pervade the Jason Seed Stringtet’s new album In the Gallery, the Milwaukee guitarist’s compositions are even more eclectic than simply a blend of Romany jazz and nuevo tango. He’s put together a formidable string band, playing acoustic alongside Glenn Asch on violin and viola, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Helen Reich on viola and and Scott Tisdel on cello, and the Chicago Symphony’s Dan Armstrong on bass. Although these players come from classical backgrounds, there’s a lot of improvisation, and the band has a lot of fun with it. Armstrong gets to bow just as much as playing basslines; Seed likes acidic close harmonies, especially with the high strings, making an uneasy counterbalance with his sinuously precise, catchy lead lines.
Seed opens the album with a solo introduction into the Goulash Rag, a biting, dancing theme that runs closer to bolero territory. Swirling high strings hand off to a cello solo over dancing bass; they take it out with a flourish. The subdued, brooding Tangoesque offers an appreciative nod to Bill Frisell’s Strange Meeting, Seed’s guitar elegantly intertwining amid the stark arrangement, with edgy solos for cello, viola and bass and then the first of the album’s many trick endings. Pictures of an Exhibitionist has a bit of a funk edge to go with the tango and the Romany guitar flavor, capped off with a sailing, glissando-fueled violin solo. Ishtar opens with a dark, droning Middle Eastern-flavored low-register taqsim and morphs into a klezmer-esque dance, Seed adding an acerbic flamenco edge, the ensemble taking it out with a shivery intensity. Krakow’s central theme is like Django at his most plaintive, with a darkly searing cello solo, the viola following in the same vein, Seed taking it up anxiously and then gracefully down again.
\Where the Corners Meet features Yang Wei on pipa, a spiky, circular theme growing to a wistful but animated crescendo, Tisdel artfully shadowing the fretted instruments as it builds to anthemic proportions. In the Right Line follows a moody folk-rock trajectory, while Caterpillar Kif is the album’s big showstopper. Agitated strings switch back and forth with a wryly bluesy theme that Seed once again takes in a flamenco direction; it gets funkier, then Tisdel takes it dancing to yet another trick ending.
One in Five might be the album’s most intense track, with a brooding rainy day guitar-and-cello duet into more flamencoesque guitar, Tisdel’s soaring chromatics against Seed’s pensive, spare, rhythmic pulse. The title track closes the album, and it turns out that this is one haunted gallery: Seed’s long, nebulously spacious solo intro hands off to Armstrong, who supplies chilling, stygian sustained lines all the way through to a darkly ironic ending. A lot of people – fans of art-rock, jazz, classical and global sounds – are going to love this album. It’s one of the year’s best, whichever category you might think it fits (and realistically, it doesn’t really fit any, which helps explain why it’s so enjoyable).
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