Dan Willis’ Satie Project II: Best Album of the Year?
Dan Willis and Velvet Gentlemen’s second Satie Project album is arguably the best jazz album of 2013. That is, if you buy the idea that there could be such a thing as a single top album among this year’s best releases, or that twisted covers of proto-minimalist late Romantic/early Modernist music should be allowed to count alongside original compositions. Willis’ new arrangements of Satie pieces might as well be originals, considering how gleefully and evilly he reimagines them. Most of Erik Satie’s repertoire was actually much more upbeat than the macabre pieces Willis has selected for inclusion here, but it’s the macabre that has stood the test of time far better than the clever and often droll ragtime hits Satie wrote to pay the bills. Willis plays pretty much every reed instrument ever invented here, including but not limited to oboe, alto, tenor and baritone saxes, clarinet, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet. Ron Oswanski gets many of the choicest moments here, on B3 organ, Wurlitzer and accordion, alongside Pete McCann on guitar, Kermit Driscoll on bass and the Claudia Quintet’s John Hollenbeck on drums.
Gnossienne No. 7 gets reinvented as murderously twinkling, shuffling Isaac Hayes wah funk, Gnossienne No. 6 as jaunty swing tune driven by Entcho Todorov’s suspiciously carefree violin. Although the versions of Pieces Froide No. 1 and the first of three takes of the main theme of Vexations (Satie’s famous eighteen-hour loop) here follow a steady beat, the way the band completely veers off center while keeping steady and totally deadpan is as amusing as it is disconcerting – this music literally makes you dizzy.
Gnossienne No. 5, a pensively atmospheric oboe feature, is the closest thing to the original here. Gnossienne No. 3 gets whispery noir vocals and a slippery, icy lead line that might be a slide guitar, or Willis’ EWI (electronic wind instrument). Pieces Froide No. 7 is redone as a chamber work that also doesn’t deviate far from the source, while the second alternate take of the Vexations theme goes completely off the rails as the organ and alto sax, and then the rest of the band diverge.
Gnossienne No. 4 gets a creepy crime jazz interpretation with plaintive soprano sax over lingering, red-neon tremolo guitar arpeggios. Gnossienne No. 2 follows a similarly noir trajectory up to a lurid if more energetic ba-BUMP organ groove. Pieces Froide No. 2 brings back a stately chamber jazz ambience; the album winds up with its longest number, the Vexations theme revisited with a wicked, diabolically surreallist microtonal flair that the composer would no doubt love if he was still with us. For Satie fans, this is a must-own; for that matter, this is a feast for any fan of dark, creepy music. Forget just about any other Halloween soundtrack you might have: this is the real deal.
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