It’s impossible to think of a more apt choice of players to evoke an awestruck deep-space glimmer than vibraphonist Chris Dingman, pianist Fabian Almazan and singer Camila Meza. Back them with the elegantly propulsive drums of Joe Nero and bassist-bandleader Bryan Copeland, and you have most of the crew on Bryan and the Aardvarks’ majestic, mighty new album Sounds from the Deep Field, streaming at Bandcamp. Saxophonist Dayna Stephens adds various shades with his EWI (electronic wind instrument) textures. They’re playing the album release show on April 27 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $22.
Over the past few years, the band have made a name for themselves with their bittersweetly gorgeous epics, and this album, inspired by Hubble Telescope images from the furthest reaches of space, is no exception. The opening number, Supernova is much less explosive than the title implies: it’s an expansive, almost imperceptibly crescendoing epic set to a steady, dancing midtempo 4/4 groove, Almazan’s purposeful ripples mingling with subtle wafts from the EWI and Meza’s wordless vocals, setting the stage for Dingman’s raptly glistening coda. Meza doesn’t play guitar on this album: that’s Jesse Lewis’ subtle but rich and constantly shifting textures.
Dingman and Almazan build and then drop back from a hypnotic, pointillistic, uneasily modal interweave as the rhythm of Eagle Nebula circles and circles, subtly fleshed out with Meza’s meteor-shower clarity and the occasional wry wisp from Stephens. Subtle syncopations give the distantly brooding Tiny Skull Sized Kingdom hints of trip-hop, Meza calmly setting the stage for an unexpectedly growling, increasingly ferocious Lewis guitar solo
Echoes of Chopin, a contemporaneous American Protestant hymnal and John Lennon as well echo throughout Soon I’ll Be Leaving This World. Almazan’s gently insistent, stern chords build to a trick turnaround, then Nero and Dingman finally come sweeping in and the lights go up. By the time the warpy electonic effects kick in, it’s obvious that this is not a death trip – at least not yet.
Meza’s tender, poignant vocals rise as the swaying waves of The Sky Turned to Grey build toward Radiohead angst. It’s the first of two numbers here with lyrics and the album’s most straight-ahead rock song, fueled by Lewis’ red-sky guitar solo. By contrast, Nero’s lighthanded, tricky metrics add to the surrealism of Strange New Planet, a disarmingly humorous mashup of Claudia Quintet and Weather Report.
Interestingly, Bright Shimmering Lights isn’t a vehicle for either Dingman or Almazan: it’s a resonant Pat Metheny-ish skyscape that grows more amusing as the timbres cross the line into P-Funk territory. It segues into LV 426, a miniature that recalls Paula Henderson’s recent, irresistibly funny adventures in electronics.
Meza’s balmy, wistful vocals waft through Magnetic Fields, the closest thing to a traditional jazz ballad here, lit up by a lingering Dingman solo. Nero’s dancing traps, Dingman’s shivery shimmers and Almazan’s twinkle mingle with Lewis’ pensive sustain and Almazan’s rapidfire, motorik electric piano in To Gaze Out the Cupola Module. the album’s closing cut.
The next time we launch a deep-space capsule, we should send along a copy of this album. If anybody out there finds it and figures out what it is, and how to play it, and can perceive the sonics, it could be a soundtrack for their own mysterious voyage through the depths.
Bassist Bryan Copeland’s Lynchian nocturnes are one of the most consistently enjoyable things happening in jazz right now. Tuesday night at Subculture’s comfortable, sonically enhanced basement space, Copeland led his group Bryan & the Aardvarks through a lush, glimmering, often poignant set of mostly new material. The keyboard-and-vibraphone pairing of Fabian Almazan (on piano and occasional electronic keys) and Chris Dingman draws some imnediate comparisons to the Claudia Quintet, but Copeland’s music is more cinematic and atmospheric. Drummer Joe Nero nonchalantly livened the band’s usual straight-up tempos, sometimes adding an undulating funkiness, other times weaving in a subtle polyrhythmic edge. Copeland has an intricate sense of harmony to rival Philip Glass, a composer he sometimes resembles, if in a considerably more ornate way.
The evening opened with a wistful, brooding chromatic theme that stubbornly resisted resolution, building tension through a long, methodically glistening Almazan solo, guitarist Jesse Lewis working his way up from spacious early Pat Metheny-style waves of melody to an unexpectedly wild flurry of Dick Dale-style tremolo-picking whose violence could easily have ruined the mood, but with the meteor shower filling the picture behind it, made a raw, rewarding coda.
Midway through the apprehensively hypnotic, chromatically-charged second number, The Sky Turns to Grey (bringing to mind Glass’ creepy In the Summer House), Copeland surprised everyone except his bandmates by beginning a solo in the middle of one of Almazan’s. Except that this bass solo turned out to be catchy, judiciously incisive variations on a guitar riff rather than a free-form excursion into uncharted territory. And when it seemed that Copeland would pass himself off as a rare bassist who limits himself to terse, memorable string motifs, toward the end of the set he surprised with an allusive, unexpectedly carefree solo that mimicked a horn line, something akin to Pharaoh Sanders signifying that it might be time to peel off the suit and knock a few back after a hard night at work.
The singlemindedness of this band is amazing, Dingman’s resonant waves rising and mingling with Almazan’s meticulous blend of energy and precision, towering High Romantic angst shifting in and out of the shadows, a soundtrack for any candy-colored clown who might have been waiting for the chance to pounce from out of the footlights. A dusky pastoral waltz followed a cinematic tangent, like a jazzier Dana Schechter tableau luridly swathed in Angelo Badalamenti velvet; a second waltz came across as a more rustic, gently bittersweet take on Bill Frisell-style blue-sky jazz, an appreciative nod from Copeland to his Texas roots. A later number worked from neon lustre up to agitation over an altered bossa groove. They wound up the night on a long, anthemically vamping swell fueled by Lewis’ uneasily insistent accents. Music this intricate and disarmingly beautiful is seldom played with as much energy as this individualistic group puts into it.
Bryan and the Aardvarks’ debut album Heroes of Make Believe is a suite of nocturnes. Their music has been characterized as noir, and that definitely is a part of the picture. Bassist/composer Bryan Copeland’s glimmering, gently surreal modal themes are fleshed out with a lush, hypnotic gleam by vibraphonist Chris Dingman, multi-keyboardist Fabian Almazan and subtle drummer Joe Nero. They’re playing tonight, Feb 22 at Joe’s Pub at 9:30, joined by Jesse Lewis on guitar: if rapturous beauty with a dark undercurrent is your thing, this is a show not to miss.
Without even considering how captivatingly the band maintains a shimmery, mysterious mood throughout their album Heroes of Make Believe, what’s most impressive is that several of the tracks are free improvisations. The group’s commitment to theme and emotional content is absolutely unwavering: there are points here where individual instrumentaion seemingly becomes irrelevant because they’re all playing as a single voice. The tracks alternate between long, often mesmerizing, slow-to-midtempo themes interspersed with brief dreamy interludes. Nero’s sotto vocce brushwork, suspenseful shuffle beats and meticulous cymbals stir this crepuscular magic as Copeland anchors it with a deftly minimalist touch. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page, with the Beatles homage Marmalade Sky – the longest track here, clocking in at just under ten minutes – available as a free download.
The opening number, These Little Hours may be the most unforgettable track here. It starts with a simple, tiptoeing, Lynchian lullaby theme and sends it sailing with a slow ultraviolet swing, part Milt Jackson ballad, part Jeff Lynne anthem as it rises and falls, Almazan’s swirling string synthesizer orchestration mingling with Dingman’s ripples and runs Nero does a neat falling-acorn bounce off his rims to kick off the epic Where the Wind Blows, building to an animated, cinematic waltz that makes a launching pad for a long, crescendoing Almazan solo that moves toward apprehension, Dingman returning it to otherworldly bittersweetness.
Lingering vibraphone contrasts with austere bowed bass to open Sunshine Through the Clouds, which morphs from there into a lushly atmospheric country ballad and from there into a hypnotically rising soul-flavored vamp that seems more of a celebration than the requiem that it is. When Night Falls, a trippy, enveloping improvisation, shuffles along steadily over a moody modal piano riff as textures flit through the mist, dub-style.
After the psychedelically-tinged, gently bustling Beatles tribute, there’s Soft Starry Night with its tiptoeing soul waltz of an intro and crescendoing gospel allusions, then the brief, tangential improvisation Mysteria. The pillowy, slinky Still I Dream bubbles along on the pulse of Almazan’s echoey Rhodes piano lines mingling with Dingman’s vibraphone to the point where it’s impossible to figure out who’s playing what.
After a menacing loop-driven miniature, the band picks up the pace with the most amthemic track here, Today Means Everything. A triumphant piano workout for Almazan, it has the feel of a title theme from a wry, literate buddy movie. The album ends with the brief interlude Just Before Dawn and then I’d Be Lost and its warm, laid-back wee-hours New Orleans groove. Whatever you want to call this: jazz, third stream, soundtrack music, noir music, it’s one of the most enticingly enjoyable albums of recent months. Shame on us for not having picked up on it sooner.