This album (buy it from Amazon) looks like it should belong to that overhyped and frequently underwhelming sub-sub-genre, “punk jazz.” But it doesn’t…not 100%, anyway. Anybody looking at its sharply angled cover art (and snazzy DVD-sized digipak, common to all releases on the excellent Skirl label), not to mention the personnel—tenor saxophonist Chris Speed, alto saxophonist and bass clarinetist Oscar Noriega, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Jim Black—could be forgiven for anticipating a roaring blowout a la John Zorn‘s Ornette Coleman tribute, Spy vs. Spy. But while there are a few tracks here that point in that direction, sometimes explicitly, no one aware of these musicians’ backgrounds (particularly Speed and Black’s time spent with Tim Berne, though Noriega has played with him, too) should be surprised by the clattering funk and broad-shouldered swing that dominates this 10-track, 51-minute disc.
The bandmembers (and co-producer Ted Reichman) have opted for an extremely naturalistic sound. Noriega’s clarinet valves clack audibly on the second track, “Rare,” and Black’s snare drum rings out sharply throughout. His drumming has a physical thump to it. It sounds like he’s playing in the back of whatever room you’re in.
All the compositions are by Speed, except for a version of Thelonious Monk‘s “Epistrophy” which is arranged in an interestingly junkyard-y way—Noriega drones like he’s soundtracking a 1940s haunted house movie, creating a steadier pulse than Dunn, who’s walking with a forceful swing as Black attacks his kit. Speed’s solo meanders around in the saxophone’s low end like he’s trying to locate the absent piano. At times, the tempo becomes decidedly debatable; he slows down and speeds up again, turning the melody into a woozy lurch.
The horns frequently pair up, blowing unison lines so tightly it’s like they’re competing in a three-legged race. They’re practically sprinting on “Elvin Lisbon,” as Black sets up a clacking rhythm that’s half swing and half hard (like, the 1969-70 JBs hard) funk. On “K,” though, Speed and Noriega sway gently, spending most of the track taking turns in the spotlight rather than standing shoulder-to-shoulder. “Tacos at Oscars” is the “look-what-I-can-do” track, laying circular breathing exercises atop a furiously intricate rhythm. When Speed launches an actual solo, it’s disjointed and squiggly, each phrase self-contained rather than flowing naturally from the one before. It seems imitative of John Coltrane, but the passion registers as ersatz—the only time that’s the case. Noriega’s alto sax solo is skronkier, with Black laying down an explosive assault on the kit behind him, and it actually does wind up sounding pretty punk rock toward the end.
On “Iris,” Noriega’s clarinet work gets almost klezmer-ish, as Dunn bows behind him and Speed blows low, melancholy notes. Eventually, the two horns begin one of the most subdued duets ever, Noriega opting to hiss rather than produce much in the way of actual notes. “Uri Bird” is built on a complex funk beat and a hard-plucked bass line, with more of the group’s now-trademark intricate dual horn lines erupting into occasional polyphony. “Valya” is a slow burner on which Black’s drumming sounds like something from a record by Nik Bärtsch‘s spidery, minimal funk-fusion group Ronin, and the album closes with “Andrew’s Ditty Variation One,” the shortest track and the one most reminiscent of Spy vs. Spy. This is a group, and an album, that will definitely appeal to fans of its members’ other projects, as well as the work of Tim Berne and/or Uri Caine and/or John Zorn (albeit to a lesser degree; there’s no stylistic jumping around here). It’s not “punk jazz,” ’cause there’s really no such thing, but it’s hyper-modern jazz, twitchy and brainy, but with just enough balls to keep it from feeling like homework, even when the horns’ interactions are at their most debating-society-esque. These guys come out of a community and a school of musical thought, and the lineage is audible in every note they play. That can be annoying, but this time it’s not. Check this record out, preferably through speakers.