Wailing saxes and whaling songs wend together in this year’s most unique jazz offering.
Jeff Lederer & Brooklyn Blowhards – Brooklyn Blowhards [TrackList follows] little music 616892358640 52:20 [4/8/16] ****:
(Jeff Lederer – tenor and soprano saxophone; Petr Cancura – tenor saxophone; Kirk Knuffke – clarinet, slide trumpet; Brian Drye – trombone; Art Bailey – accordion; Stephen LaRosa, Matt Wilson, Allison Miller – concert percussion, ship’s bell, chum bucket, chain; Mary LaRose – vocals (tracks 5, 7, 10, 12, 14); Gary Lucas – guitar (tracks 5, 10, 12))
The notion of linking Albert Ayler, traditional sea chanties and Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, may appear like something from a late-night dream. But it’s a reality. Saxophonist Jeff Lederer has created what is surely the most unique jazz album of the year. His group (and the band’s self-titled release) is Brooklyn Blowhards. The record is available as digital download, CD or vinyl. This review refers to the CD. The project’s gestation occurred when Lederer’s friend and musical collaborator, drummer/percussionist Matt Wilson, told Lederer how Ayler’s 1967 recording, Love Cry, “sounded very folk-like… almost like sea chanties.” Years later, cornetist Kirk Knuffke (also part of the Brooklyn Blowhards) introduced Lederer to the traditional vocal group The Foc’sile Singers. And that was that. Lederer states, “The idea of connecting sea shanties with the music of Albert Ayler seemed to be not only completely natural, but inevitable.”
The result is nearly an hour of music which skillfully combines what should be disparate constituents, but are juxtaposed into poised, memorable and complex jazz which brings Ayler’s sound and tone into the present day. There are 14 tracks, which range in length from five minutes to just under two minutes, with five Ayler compositions; one by Wilson and one by Lederer; and a slew of old-timey sea chanties reinterpreted and reconstructed. Alongside Lederer (on tenor and soprano sax), Knuffke (clarinet and slide trumpet) and Wilson (credited with concert percussion, ship’s bell and chum bucket) are fellow travelers Petr Cancura (tenor sax), trombonist Brian Drye, accordionist Art Bailey, percussionists Allison Miller and Stephen LaRosa, vocalist Mary LaRose and guitarist Gary Lucas. Most of the musicians are linked to each other in some way or another, although inking the adjoined lines would take too long to illustrate in this review. Suffice to say, there’s chemistry to this configuration.
Ayler often utilized anthemic arrangement elements and marching or military-like themes, which tend to be the same qualities heard in sea shanties. Thus, the CD’s opener, Ayler’s “Bells,” is a particularly apt way to start. Massed drums and horns establish the maritime leitmotif. While the brass section is initially on an even keel, frenzied squeals and screeches soon take over, heightened by Bailey’s similarly straightforward to strident accordion. The traditional “Haul Away Joe” pursues a comparable inclination. The snare maintains a martial movement and cadence, supplemented by accordingly aligned accordion, Drye drives forward with enthusiastic trombone, and the saxes serve up some equivalently animated rejoinders. There is some amazing call and response between the horn players and also the percussionists on the flowingly fun “Black Ball Line,” which refers to a cross-Atlantic ship passenger line which operated in the 1800s. Other Ayler tunes are also redone. The mistitled “Dancing Flower” (it’s “Dancing Flowers” on Love Cry) is elongated and strengthened. With more horns, the delicate melody is intensified and with the absence of harpsichord, the arrangement is better and further fortified. Ayler’s “Heavenly Home” is pared to essentials (Ayler’s live 1967 Village Vanguard version was almost nine minutes and can be too discordant for some). Lederer rearranges “Heavenly Home” to give weight to the various horns and lets the accordion and multiple drums and percussion layer rhythmic components into intriguing ingredients.
Sea chanties work fine as boisterous instrumentals, but certain songs necessitate vocal support as well. LaRose brings those seafaring lyrics to life on five cuts. She’s briefly featured on the heaving “Shallow Brown,” which also includes Lucas’ steel guitar contributions. She is entirely effervescent on Ayler’s “Island Harvest.” Ayler issued this on his 1969 LP, Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe, with his business associate and girlfriend Mary Parks on vocals. Her voice was an acquired taste which sometimes seemed uninspired. LaRose, on the other hand, provides the definitive adaptation of “Island Harvest,” suffusing the lyrics about labor and planting one’s future with more emotional depth and sympathy. LaRose also is a factor in the success of Wilson’s blues-hued “Dancing Waters” (where her wordless vocals are affectedly interweaved with Lucas’ steel guitar chords); and her most notable showcase is on the traditional ballad, “Shenandoah,” usually known as “Oh Shenandoah.” While this song is ostensibly about fur traders canoeing down the wide Missouri, over time it was shifted into a sailor’s travelogue. There’s beautiful interplay between Bailey, Lucas and LaRose, emphasized by the tune’s folk-rooted arrangement. The album’s final piece “Insular Tahiti” (AKA “The Seaman’s Hymn”) accumulates all influences into a single track. The horns impart a mournful backing, while LaRose quotes from Moby Dick’s chapter 58, intoning how evil surrounds each man like an ocean filled with deadly creatures; and how one must stay true to one’s course to avoid peril. It is infrequent when listeners are afforded the opportunity to re-evaluate music via an original and distinctive approach. The Brooklyn Blowhards grants the ability to hear Ayler’s music in a different context; and also prove how surprisingly well sea chanties can be turned into dynamic tunes which sound like something Ayler might have created. The Brooklyn Blowhards CD is a one-of-a-kind and rare chance to rethink one’s perceptions of Ayler as well as seafaring music and perceive how seemingly unrelated material can indeed be tied together. [Only available as MP3 at time of review.]
TrackList: Bells; Haul Away Joe; Dancing Flower; Black Ball Line; Shallow Brown; Sanity Anno; Island Harvest; Heavenly Home; Haul on the Bowline; Dancing Waters; Omega; Shenandoah; The Language of Resistance; Insular Tahiti (also known as The Seaman’s Hymn).
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