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.
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.
The Jolly Boys’ new album Great Expectations – their first in possibly decades – might be the year’s funniest release. The octogenarian Jamaican band – who used to serenade Errol Flynn back in the 50s – plays mento, the folk music that gave birth to calypso, ska and eventually reggae. Where the Easy Star All-Stars have fun doing reggae versions of Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the Jolly Boys have just released an album of rock songs – most of them standards, with a few obscurities – done with vocals, banjo, acoustic guitar and stompbox. It’s hilarious and it’s totally punk rock even if it’s 100% acoustic – and the music is pretty good, too. The lead singer can’t hit the high notes, but that’s part of the fun – and it’s not as if he isn’t trying his best. Is this exploitation? No, it’s satire.
One of the funniest things about it is that you get to hear the lyrics clearly. The most brutal version here is Blue Monday, a synth-disco hit for New Order in 1986. Stark, rustic and the most punk track here, what’s obvious from the first few nonsensical lines is what a truly moronic song this is. It’s the one point on the album where you can sense that the band can’t wait to get this over with. Strangely, Golden Brown, a slick 1985 British pop hit by the Stranglers, isn’t funny – it’s as boring as the original. The rest is a long series of WTF moments. “Just a perfect day, drinking Bailey’s in the park,” rasps frontman/guitarist Albert Minott as the upbeat, bouncy version of the Lou Reed song gets underway – is that the actual lyric? Riders on the Storm is hilarious: “From the top to the very last drop,” Minott announces, obviously aware of who sang it the first time around. And their version of You Can’t Always Get What You Want is every bit as interminable as the original, if not as annoying, Jagger’s fifth-rate Dylan impersonation naked and ugly in the stripped-down arrangement.
But not everything here is as cruel. There are two Iggy songs. The Passenger is just plain great, and the band responds joyously; Nightclubbing is reinvented as a banjo tune, where somebody takes a mean pickslide after Minott announces that “We learn dances like the Nuclear Bomb.” The Nerves’ (and later Blondie’s) Hanging on the Telephone is a period reference that fits the band perfectly; Steely Dan’s Do It Again is the least recognizable of all the songs; by contrast, I Fought the Law and Ring of Fire could both have been mento originals, considering how many influences it shares with oldtime American C&W. The most bizarrely amusing track here is the Amy Winehouse hit Rehab, which has to be heard to be appreciated (and has a clever video streaming at the band’s site). The album closes with three deviously aphoristic mento standards: the cautionary tale Dog War, the slyly metaphorical Night Food, and a hypnotic, harmony-driven version of Emmanuel Road. It’s safe to predict that many of these songs will end up on late-night mixes at bars and parties throughout the next few years and, who know, maybe for a long time. The Jolly Boys have been around for more than half a century and show no sign of going away.
Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues as it does every day, all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #765:
Songs by Tom Lehrer
“What I like to do is to take some of the songs that we know and presumably love [pause for audience snickering] and get them when they’re down, and kick them.” From the time he debuted with this 1953 independently released, lo-fi solo piano album, Tom Lehrer understood that 90% of humor is based on cruelty. The prototypical funny guy with the piano was still at Harvard when he pressed a few dozen copies for his friends and classmates who’d seen his shtick in the student lounge. If he came out with this kind of stuff today, no doubt he’d have billions of youtube hits. Hostile, sarcastic and fearless, his satire is spot-on and strikingly timeless, despite the fact that it relies exclusively on innuendo and is therefore G-rated. One by one, he skewers dumb college football songs (Fight Fiercely, Harvard); hillbilly music (I Wanna Go Back to Dixie); cowboy songs (The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be); ghoulish Irish ballads; Stephen Foster-style schmaltz (My Home Town); and Strauss waltzes (The Weiner Schnitzel Waltz). He also includes an early stoner anthem (The Old Dope Peddler), a klezmer parody (Lobachevsky) that does double duty as a satire of academia, I Hold Your Hand in Mine (which predates the Addams Family) and When You Are Old and Grey, a snide and equally ghoulish sendup of old people. While it doesn’t have the Vatican Rag, I Got It from Agnes, Pollution or Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, it’s the most consistently excellent Lehrer collection out there. If you like this stuff you’ll also probably like his 1959 live album An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer. He retired from music early in the 1960s and went on to a slightly less acclaimed but ostensibly just as rewarding career as a Harvard math professor. Here’s a random torrent.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #774:
The Viper Mad Blues anthology
This compilation features old songs from the late 20s through the 40s about smoking pot, and occasionally, snorting coke. This old jazz and country shizzit is more punk than the Ramones and more gangsta than L’il Wayne ever dreamed of, and although it was banned from the radio it was wildly popular in its day. The coolest thing about the 25 tracks here is that only two of them, Cab Calloway’s 1935 hit Kicking the Gong Around (which is actually about smoking opium), and a gleefully adrenalized version of Leadbelly’s coke anthem Take a Whiff on Me, are really obvious. The others have proliferated thanks to youtube and file sharing, but when the compilation came out in 1989, it was a tremendous achievement…for those who like funny songs about drugs, at least. If ragtime guitar star Luke Jordan’s Cocaine Blues (not the version you’re thinking of) is to be believed, that stuff was a staple of hillbilly life back in 1927. Some other highlights: Larry Adler’s hilarious 1938 hit Smoking Reefers; Cleo Brown’s deadpan The Stuff Is Here and It’s Mellow; Champion Jack Dupree’s Junker’s Blues, a kick-ass piano boogie from 1944; Baron Lee & the Blue Rhythm Band’s 1935 tribute to their dealer, Reefer Man; and Fats Waller’s Reefer Song: “Hey, cat, it’s 4 o’clock in the morning, here we are in Harlem, everybody’s here but the police and they’ll be here in a minute. It’s high time, so here it is…” Here’s a random torrent.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. We’re putting Sunday’s album up a little early since we’re going up to Graceland North for a little pumpkin picking. Back on Monday with more news and reviews. Have a fun weekend! Here’s #828:
Jimmy Castor – The Everything Man: Best of the Jimmy Castor Bunch
Jimmy Castor was cursed with a great sense of humor. Cursed, because he’s a serious musician – a classically trained pianist and saxophonist – pegged as a writer of novelty songs. He may be known as the funniest man in funk, but in a career that spans part of seven decades, from doo-wop (he replaced Frankie Lymon in the Teenagers) to go-go to latin soul (he was one of its pioneers) to his most famous period leading the Jimmy Castor Bunch in the 70s, he’s also one of the most successfully eclectic songwriters ever. A lot of his catalog is out of print. This early 90s compilation, for better or worse, focuses on the hits, most of which are as hilarious as they are boundary-smashing, incorporating elements of psychedelia, heavy metal and latin sounds into funk: Sly Stone and George Clinton had nothing on this guy. This covers the decade of the 70s into the early 80s, starting with Hey Leroy, Your Mama’s Callin’ You – the dozens, updated for the pre-disco era; the slinky, Joe Cuba-inspired Southern Fried Frijoles, and It’s Just Begun, sampled by thousands of hip-hop acts in the following decades. That’s just the beginning. There’s also the follow-up Say Leroy (The Creature from the Black Lagoon Is Your Father); Castor’s best-known funk hit, Troglodyte, and its even funnier sequel the Bertha Butt Boogie (a massive top 40 hit in 1975); along with the self-explanatory King Kong, The Return of Leroy (where finally the joke starts to wear thin), the popular and well-sampled dancefloor vamps Potential and Maximum Stimulation and a couple of throwaways among the album’s 17 tracks. Here’s a random torrent.
Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #841:
The Rutles – Archaeology
The soundtrack to the 1978 Rutles movie is one of the funniest parodies ever made. At the time the film came out, rumors of Beatles reunions were swirling, and – if you can believe it – outside of the Fab Four’s fan base, the individual Beatles were pretty much seen as has-beens. Neil Innes, Ollie Halsall, Rikki Fataar and John Halsey (with Eric Idle contributing skits and lyrics) combined their comic and remarkably Beatlesque musicianship for the ultimate Beatles spoof. The film chronicles the exploits of a popular band who mystifyingly had nothing to say and influenced nobody, with cameos from Beatles colleagues including a particularly hilarious one by Paul Simon discussing the long chord at the end of A Day in the Life. But this album, released in 1997 in the wake of the Beatles anthologies (therefore, “Archaeology”) is even better. And the satire is equally ruthless. Cleverly ripping off George and John’s somber major/minor changes, Ringo’s mystifying drum style and Paul’s busy bass, they riff on Beatlisms both famous and obscure. We’ve Arrived (And to Prove It We’re Here) has fun with a Back in the USSR shuffle and airplane noises. Questionnaire is a deadpan, dead-serious Imagine ripoff; Lonely-Phobia and the insanely nonsensical Unfinished Words make fun of 60s chamber pop more than any specific songs. The Knicker Elastic King is a bouncy, lol funny take on Penny Lane; Hey Mister and Joe Public make fun of the Beatles’ hit-and-miss attempts at a harder guitar sound on the White Album and Abbey Road; the funniest songs here are the over-the-top psychedelia of Shangri-La and the uninhibitedly vicious Eine Kleine Middle Klasse Music. Beatles fans either love this (because it’s so spot-on) or hate it (because it’s so unsparing). Because most of the jokes are so specific, it helps if you know the source material. Here’s a random torrent.
Bryan and the Haggards’ debut album Pretend It’s the End of the World is a collection of twisted instrumental covers of Merle Haggard songs, and it’s as funny as anything Ween ever did. Because its satirical bite sometimes goes completely over the top, it wasn’t clear how the band – a bunch of free jazz types – would approach the songs live. At Bar 4 in Park Slope on Monday night, tenor saxophonist and bandleader Bryan Murray wore a faded red Hag baseball hat; Jon Irabagon, the “heavyweight of the alto sax,” as Murray sardonically called him, sported a rare Bryan and the Haggards t-shirt. From the first few bars of the first song, what was most obvious, and unexpected, was that they’re a genuinely good straight-up country band if they want to be – for a few bars, until they start messing with the songs. Country music isn’t everybody’s thing, but it’s a lot of fun to play, and that fun comes intuitively to this crew. Guitarist Jon Lundbom would go deep off the jazz end at times, but he’s got a bag of C&W licks; bassist Moppa Elliott looked like he was having more fun than anybody else in the band even though he was mostly playing the simplest lines possible, one-five, one-five, and drummer Danny Fischer, whose leaden pulse is responsible for a lot of the humor on the album, gave the songs a jaunty swing when he wasn’t acting out. Which he did, a lot, and cracked everybody up, especially his bandmates. He began his first solo by stopping cold, followed by a pregnant pause: Elliott tried easing him in, but Fischer wouldn’t budge, finally doing a neanderthal Fred Flintstone impression all the way around his kit.
On Lonesome Fugitive, Elliott joined him in disfiguring the time signature while Lundbom took a long, incisive jazz solo, holding steady to the 4/4 even as he ran long, snaky passages, deadpan and seemingly oblivious to the joke. A slow, swaying 6/8 number with countrypolitan tinges – Miss the Mississippi and You, maybe? – featured a warmly melodic solo excursion from Murray that finally took on an insistent postbop intensity as he went for the upper registers. Likewise, it was nothing short of exhilarating to watch Irabagon – whose new album Foxy is due out this month – make short work of an endless series of razorwire glissandos. And maybe predictably, it was one of his solos, a mealymouthed, weepily retarded, off-key stumble during their opening number, that was the funniest moment in a night full of many.
Fischer had assembled some pint glasses behind his drums, a primitive marimba that he’d plink on or even use to add a little melody. When he took another lengthy pause during a solo, Lundbom asked him if he wanted another beer. The answer was no: for whatever reason, he didn’t need it. A crowd trickled in as the band played: patrons looked around quizzically, then smiled when they realized what was happening. There would have been a lot more of those looks, and a lot more audible laughter, had it been later in the evening. But that was just the first set.