Who’s the funniest person in jazz? Wycliffe always knows when to go for the punchline. Jon Irabagon probably plays more musical jokes than anybody else, and Moppa Elliott is right there with him. Put those two together in Mostly Other People Do the Killing – who have a typically killer new album – and look out. Mary Halvorson can be devastatingly funny when she wants; ditto Brian Charette. Another guy with an endless supply of pretty hilarious ideas is Boston-based reedman Daniel Bennett, who has a characteristically devious new album, Sinking Houseboat Confusion streaming at Spotify. He and his long-running four-piece group with guitarist Nat Janoff, bassist Eddy Khaimovich and drummer Matthew Feick have a St. Paddy’s Day gig coming up at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood. Cover is $10, the club wasn’t enforcing that annoying drink minimum the last time this blog was in the house there, and if you must be out on March 17, this show should be amateur-free.
The album’s first track is a steady, motoring guitar theme, John Lizard Comes Home: Janoff’s deadpan purposefulness brings to mind Jon Lundbom in sardonically carefree mode. Bennett plays his usual alto sax and also flute on the second number, Andrew Variations, an upbeat, pastorally-tinged tune with a serpentine lattice of voices (and amusing electronic patches) akin to Tom Csatari’s most humorous work.
Bobby Brick Sent Me Daniel Bennett has a purposefully vamping, modal groove and a no-nonsense alto attack from the bandleader, in the same vein as JD Allen’s “jukebox jazz.” The title cut brings back the album’s opening motorik beat, endless success of growling, distorted rock guitar changes and some wry alto/flute multitracks. Bennett sticks with the flute on Paint the Fence, with its woozy guitar sonics and surrealistic Jethro Tull jazz vibe: fans of Prague jamband weirdos Jull Dajen will love this.
Doctor Duck Builds a Patio – gotta love those titles, huh? – is a sort of syncopated take on the opening number: again, it’s like Csatari, but even more surreal and a lot more shreddy. We Are OK! opens ominously, Bennett playing eerily rippling cimbalom-like lines on piano as the tune comes together, a series of echoey long-tone phrases over a steady rhythm and then a stampeding free-for-all.
Poet Michele Herman recites her wry Little Disappointments of Modern Life over Bennett’s solo alto waves and echoes. Then he switches to clarinet for Animals Discussing Life Changes, a waltz, the most cartoonish number here. The album winds up with a spacy, vertiginous, suspiciously blithe reprise of the title theme, Bennett back on alto and joined by Mark Cocheo on guitar.
Although this is fun, colorful music, Bennett has a serious side. He came down strongly on the side of the good guys in that recent social media kerfluffle where Robert Glasper alleged that women jazz fans (“Fine European women,” to be specific) hear with their lower extremities and don’t have the brains to understand solos.
Humor is supposely based on cruelty 90% of the time, right? If that’s the case, New York supergroup Mostly Other People Do the Killing are the world’s cruelest jazz band. Since the early zeros they’ve skewered just about every jazz trope: they’re sort of the Spinal Tap of the genre. Ostensibly, their new album Slippery Rock, out on their Hot Cup label on Jan 22, is a parody of 70s and 80s elevator jazz. There are places where the satire is obvious but just as many when it’s not, which is partly because the band stick to their acoustic sax/trumpet/bass/drums format rather than employing synthesizers and drum machines, and partly since there are interludes where the band find themselves shuffling along with an amiable, brightly second-line-tinged flavor, unselfconsciously attractive despite themselves. When the jokes are most vivid, it’s most often when Peter Evans’ trumpet and Jon Irabagon’s alto sax join together for a simpering, cloying hook, fall away from it, turn back on it and then take swipes or rip it to shreds. Bassist Moppa Elliott and drummer Kevin Shea’s satire here is more subtle – no grooves, especially the smooth ones, are safe from parody. The dumber and simpler they are, the dumber and simpler they make them.
The operative question is how many other jokes are here – probably a lot – and who is going to get them. For better or worse, this album is kind of like making fun of wallpaper. People who make it and sell it (and maybe who rip it off the walls and trash it) might get the jokes, but who else? These guys have obviously done their homework, but ask yourself, would someone who claims to like Kenny G actually be able to name song titles, let alone hum you a tune or two?
Be that what it may, there’s still a lot of fun here. The opening track spoofs funk-jazz grooves and romantic slow-jam ambience with a quote that’s too funny to give away. Can’t Tell Shipp from Shohola (a reference to Elliott’s beloved native Pennsylvania) works familiar MOPDtK territory, hinting at an easygoing triplet vamp that nobody’s willing to officially admit exists. Sayre (another Keystone State shout-out) layers bop over a ridiculous bump-BUMP rhythm that hints at reggae, the horns eventually finding it too hard to resist hamming it up.
Irabagon pillories cluelessly ostentatious sax breaks on President Polk; Evans’ nervously rapidfire cameo on Yo, Yeo, Yeough and its altered disco beat is just as funny. Dexter, Wayne and Mobley, a parody of homages, is pretty priceless, its pastiche making no sense whatsoever. Jazzy tv themes get their due on the mealymouthed, chattering Jersey Shore, while Paul’s Journey to Opp reverts to the generalized messing it up of the band’s prior catalog, having fun with dissecting a too-bright-to-be-true vamp. The album closes with Is Granny Spry?, Irabagon and Evans quoting from both the classics and tv over a groove that’s so absurdly artless that it’s impossible not to laugh.
To fully appreciate how entertainingly vicious this band can be, get their 2009 album This Is Our Moosic – although ageless jazz critic Leonardo Featherweight’s liner notes on this one are especially LMFAO, enough to justify the price of a cd. The band are on European tour in February, with a return to New York on Feb 28 at the Cornelia St. Cafe.
Funny jazz – there just isn’t enough of it. Happily, there’s bass guitarist Steve Horowitz’s recent New Monsters album, which follows an often comedic trajectory into the future of where melodic jazz is going. It seems to be Posi-Tone’s entry in the youngish eclectic kitchen-sink combo sweepstakes, and it is a winner. Hijinks aside, it’s an elegant blend of purist postbop, irreverently wry Microscopic Septet-ish narratives and funky Ethiopian-tinged excursions that would be at home in the Either/Orchestra catalog. While the album is credited to Horowitz, the composer here is tenor saxophonist Dan Plonsey, a brilliantly eclectic, witty and consistently surprising talent, playing alongside Steve Adams on alto and soprano saxes and also flute, with Scott Looney on piano and Jim Bove on drums.
The humor here runs the gamut, from subtle – the opening track, Imperfect Life, a casually insistent study in jauntily biting un-resolutions – to vaudevillian, culminating in the closing cut, Cylinder, a swinging Looney Tunes march punctuated by the most amusing drum break in recent memory. Not everything here is comedic, either. For example, there’s Mirror Earth, a swinging Micros-in-Ethiopia groove bookending a glittery free interlude for piano and alto sax. There’s also Journey to the East, a distantly south Asian-inflected, echoey, swirling microtonal overture that sets up a jauntily delicious romp through Coltrane and Dolphy’s India/The Red Planet with vividly biting, jagged saxes and spot-on modal piano. The title track artfully switches its galloping Ethiopiques bounce from bass to piano, after an unexpected swing interlude capped off by swirling tenor sax over machinegunning drums. And Miracle Melancholy juxtaposes bittersweet Dave Valentin-inflected flute against wary Ethiopian modalities, with a twinkly, minimalist piano interlude that rises as an unexpected joke.
The rest of the record is a lot of fun. There are a couple of sly strolling numbers: Vision Pyramid Collapse, with prepared piano mimicking a violin’s pizzicato, and the faux New Orleans march Dragon of Roses, featuring satirically conspiratorial, increasingly off-center twin saxes. There’s also New Boots for Bigfoot, a reggae tune with scurrying, Monty Alexander-style piano and what seems to be an interminable bass solo that turns out to have multiple levels of meaning – intentionally or not, it works. And Herald of Zombies marches up to where Plonsey and Looney threaten to raid the horror film cliche cupboard. This Bay Area crew sounds like they’d be a ton of fun live.
Jazz from Holland – isn’t that kind of like surf music from Peru or gypsy music from America? Actually, yes. Gogol Bordello are from Brooklyn (applause please), and for years Peru made the world’s best surf music (back then they called it chicha). One of the more entertaining groups in the vital Dutch jazz scene is the irreverent and frequently comedic quartet Talking Cows, whose series of droll videos has made them a youtube sensation. Tenor saxophonist Frans Vermeersen gets credit for the more serious songs on their latest album Almost Human (just out on Dutch label Morvin Records); pianist Robert Vermeulen seems to be the cutup in the group. Bassist Dion Nijland has a remarkably melodic, terse style, while eclectic drummer Yonga Sun is equally at home with latin grooves, complex polyrhythms utilizing every square inch of the drum kit, or sraight-up in-the-pocket swing.
The opening track, Hurdles in Threes is something of a false start, a triplet tune that refuses to resolve, hanging out just a bit under the tonic with postbop sax swirls, loungey piano, dancing bass and latin-flavored drumming. It doesn’t give much of a hint of the levity lying in store. The second track, sarcastically titled A Serious Lack of Humour does that, though, through a deadpan solo bass intro, variations on a riff that echoes Ellington’s Caravan, a squalling sax crescendo and all of a sudden a noir loungey interlude that rises again on Vermeersen’s steely lines. A Stroll for Gonso is sort of their warped version of Harlem Nocturne, slowly bubbling with smoky sax, wry mallets on the drums and finally a long, thoughtful Vermeersen solo that straightens things out. They evoke the Microscopic Septet with the blippy, occasionally vaudevillian, Monk-tinged Dinner Is Served, full of fake turnarounds, rhythmic tricks, a ridiculously repetitive righthand piano riff and finally an Epistrophy quote. It’s one of two live recordings here, the second being the dizzyingly polyrhythmic, latin-inflected closing track Hop On, Hop Off which works its way from sly funk to relaxed, lyrical bliss.
The funky/bluesy Not Yet juxtaposes gleefully eerie upper-register piano flourishes with sly sax and a long, genial crescendo that really starts to cook as Sun takes it up huffing and puffing with a shuffle. Mos Def! returns to having fun with latin and Monk, Vermeulen throwing one jape after another into the mix shamelessly as the group veers from relaxed, bluesy charts to the point of pandemonium and then back again. A free piece titled Hang Glider lets an anthemic theme evolve slowly out of carefree, rubato, cool-breeze interplay between sax, bass and piano, while Mooing Around turns a jump blues tune into refusenik postbop much like the opening track. There’s also Two Guys and a Beer (the band doesn’t say what kind, or how many), a jovial, period-perfect 1950s clave jukebox jazz stroll that Vermeulen takes completely off plan. We need more bands like this.
With their four-saxophone frontline, Dead Cat Bounce create the kind of music that sends toy soldiers sinking fast into a mug of hot chocolate – ok, that’s the most surreal of the cd booklet images, but it’s a good one. Their latest album Chance Episodes dispels any demons you can imagine. Who knew that a commission from Chamber Music America could yield such amusing and entertaining results? With their eclecticism, relentlessly droll, usually spot-on sense of humor and counterintuitive charts, the obvious comparison is the Microscopic Septet. When composer/bandleader Matt Steckler is in a more straight-ahead mood, some of the material here evokes the World Saxophone Quartet. But their sound is completely original and often absolutely delightful. The group also includes Jared Sims, Terry Goss and Charlie Kohlhase on saxes and other reeds along with Dave Ambrosio on bass and Bill Carbone on drums. As a Cuneiform Records band, they’re playing their label’s two-week extravaganza at the Stone on Nov 25 at 10 PM.
As you would expect from a band this irreverent, the song titles match the music. Take the opening track, Food Blogger: this guy is a madman! Steckler’s arrangements are meticulous, and pretty hilarious, all helter-skelter scurrying and big sarcastic crescendos with Goss gone OCD, Kohlhase (one of the great wits in jazz) climbing wryly and knowingly with his baritone before Steckler scurries and tiptoes on soprano sax.
Tourvan Confessional goes in an even more wry direction, its funky/bluesy charts lit up by cheery Kohlhase accents. A bright, bustling rush-hour scenario, Far From the Matty Crowd highlights Ambrosio’s hard-hitting, tuneful bass, Carbone’s out-of-nowhere bursts and then a completely unanticipated descent into hallucinatory quietness where Carbone once again gets to play ham and makes the most of it.
Likewise, Salon Sound Journal shifts from funky to swinging and then to an austere, semi-fugal wind ensemble passage. Bio Dyno Man – a mellow superhero who sounds like a Kohlhase creation – has Steckler’s soprano defiantly resisting any kind of resolution, an unexpected whirlwind with the whole ensemble and then Ambrosio matter-of-factly bringing back the slink. A cinematic mini-suite, Silent Movie, Russia 1995 morps from staggered march, to bolero, then to clave, with a laid-back Sims tenor solo with a playful Dexter Gordon quote. Watkins Glen – a racetrack, so those alto accents might be car horns – gives Ambrosio, who’s the secret star of this thing, a chance to air out his classical side, Steckler’s flute rising in contrast.
A blithely swaying, latin-inflected number, Salvation and Doubt evokes the western hemisphere of Either/Orchestra with Gil Evans-inflected swells and some deviously unfocused alto from Goss. There’s also Township Jive Revisited, a lively mbaqanga-flavored tune that eventually brings in a genially pulsing New Orleans vibe; Madame Bonsilene, contrasting astringent atonalities with Kohlhase’s solid, strolling underpinning; and Living the Dream, a funk song with a long, intricately joyous crescendo to take the album out on a high note.
Another cool thing about this record: the cd back cover includes credits for solos. That’s not an ego thing – it makes a lot easier for a listener to figure out who’s playing what, and how.
The new album 12 Preludes and Fugues by the Colorado Saxophone Quartet is a showcase for composer Michael Pagan’s seemingly boundless eclecticism, not to mention his sense of humor. There’s a centuries-old precedent for this: timbrewise, it’s just a little grittier than your typical wind ensemble. Imagine the baritone sax as the bassoon and the soprano as the oboe and you won’t be far off. Most of these pieces clock in at around three minutes or less, many of them imaginatively interpolating elements of the baroque, jazz, and film music, frequently with trick endings and unexpected tempo shifts. Often the fugue will embellish the preceding prelude’s theme but just as often it’ll change the mood completely. The ensemble: Pete Lewis, Clare Church, Tom Myer, Andrew Stonerock and Kurtis Adams (yes, there are five in all, but apparently not all at once) – display an often stunning ability to get their fingers around all the styles here, some of which are pretty foreign to the saxophone. The album starts out baroque, goes in a darkly cinematic, more jazz-inflected direction, followed by brief detours into the Romantic era and 1950s latin pop.
The most stunning cut here is also the longest. Vividly alluding to the preceding fugue, Prelude IV expands on the noir atmosphere that will take centerstage throughout the following several segments, Bernard Herrmann as arranged by Gil Evans, maybe. Pagan’s use of interlocking voices is dizzying, to the point where the ensemble sounds many times larger than a simple four-piece. This segment is a suspense theme that goes up with an uneasy trill, then back down where it percolates darkly. Baritone sax maintains a magnificently burnished cello-like tone on the brooding fugue that comes afterward, followed by Prelude V which is actually a prelude and a fugue in itself, slow, methodical noir swing followed by a bustling, intricately orchestrated chase scene. A bit later, after a lull in the suspense, there’s a break with a baroque/jazz-infused tango, a jaunty ragtime/early swing number but without the cornball affectations, another series of noir interludes, a sad, atmospheric waltz and finally a break from the moody intensity with a warm nocturne that wouldn’t be out of place in Brahms.
The rest of this is isn’t as dark, often serving as a vehicle for Pagan’s abundant humor. Prelude XIX is a darkly comedic theme with almost a reggae beat and Middle Eastern tinges. The most overtly baroque works here which open the album are somewhat over-the-top in a Victor Borge/Raymond Scott kind of way and are often uproariously funny. As is the concluding piece, a genial, bouncily swinging tarantella melody that takes on the feel of a bumbling gangster movie theme. The ensemble clearly have as much fun playing this as Pagan must have when he wrote it – now it’s your turn.