The John Lurie National Orchestra – The Invention of Animals – Amulet Records

The John Lurie National Orchestra – The Invention of Animals [TrackList follows] – Amulet Records AMT037, 38:01 [1/21/14] 180-gram vinyl ***1/2:

(John Lurie – alto & soprano saxophone; Grant Calvin Weston – drums; Billy Martin – percussion)

Anyone hoping for some new music from multi-hyphenate John Lurie may have to keep wishing. His last release was Sleepwalk in 2000. In 1978, the saxophonist founded the brash jazz outfit the Lounge Lizards, later also began acting in independent films such as Down by Law, Desperately Seeking Susan, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Wild at Heart; and more recently became a painter, and a near-recluse due to ongoing health problems. Back in January, Amulet Records issued The Invention of Animals, a retrospective collection of live recordings and studio tracks credited to Lurie’s trio project, the ironically-named John Lurie National Orchestra. The album is an archival compilation: some material dates from 1993’s Men with Sticks, some others emanate from the 1998 soundtrack for Lurie’s 1991 cable series, “Fishing with John.” And there is some unreleased music which may interest long-time Lurie aficionados.

The seven pieces on The Invention of Animals feature Lurie on alto and soprano sax alongside the National Orchestra rhythm section, drummer Grant Calvin Weston and percussionist Billy Martin, both Lounge Lizards alumni. The Invention of Animals is available as both vinyl and digital download. This review refers to the 38-minute vinyl edition, which (unlike many new vinyl LPs), does not come with a digital download card. Those who want to own both vinyl and digital apparently will need to purchase both separately. For the most part, the music is fluid, subtle and subdued. Anyone longing for the Lounge Lizards may be disappointed.

The six tunes on Side A range in length from over seven minutes to under a minute. One droll element is that side A finishes with a skipping end-groove. If the needle does not automatically rise as the side concludes, a repeating percussive groove will recur over and over: a nod, perhaps, to the vinyl era when other artists pulled the same prank. Side A opens with the quietly striding “Flutter,” originally on the “Fishing with John” soundtrack (though this is two minutes shorter than the one on the soundtrack). Then there is “Men with Sticks (Noble Version),” which is an alternate version of the 1993 album’s title track. This nearly five-minute cut confirms how sinuous and fluent Lurie, Martin and Weston were. Lurie’s alluring alto sax probes the nuances of his melodic theme, while the rhythm duo orbit through a percussive underpinning.  Three other tunes from “Fishing with John” are on side A. The wistful but explorative “The Beast” is highlighted by Lurie’s flowing and sometimes enthusiastic soprano sax, and African-tinged percussion: this edit is 2:08 shorter than the version from the 1998 “Fishing with John” soundtrack. The understated ballad “Little” has light, ticking percussion but is mainly a Lurie solo showcase for his reflective soprano.

There are two never-heard-before numbers. The 7:25 studio cut, “I Came to Visit Here for a While,” was recorded May 7, 1993 at New York City’s Threadwaxing Space, and contains sequenced, brief melodic lines. Lurie uses repetitive, modal expressions across his alto sax range to investigate the themes’ tonalities. Meanwhile, Martin and Weston utilize various percussive instruments, including a kalimba, tom toms, hand drums, and other percussive tools to help move the music along and preserve it from becoming stagnant. The entire side B comprises the record’s title track: a 19-minute work edited from a longer jam taped February 12, 1994 in Thessaloniki, Greece. Here, the trio’s close relationship is at the forefront. They expand a basic compositional outline and head into uncharted waters. Lurie’s uninhibited characteristic is displayed as he teases sounds from his horn, sometimes in response to and, now and then, in contrast to the unrestricted groove. As the drums and percussion heighten, the players enhance the accelerating pace with chants and other vocal effects. The intensity builds but never goes into free jazz territory, thus listeners’ consideration and approachability are maintained. The extended track closes with an improvised percussion outro. The audio quality is superb on the 180-gram vinyl, although the live recordings are not quite as pristine as the studio recordings. The sensitive percussion as well as Lurie’s occasionally low-key sax, though, can be enjoyed throughout.

TrackList: Flutter; Men with Sticks (Noble Version); I Came to Visit Here for a While; The Beast; Little; Ignore the Giant; The Invention of Animals.

—Doug Simpson

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