Cowboys & Frenchmen – Rodeo – Outside In Music

by | Feb 22, 2016 | Jazz CD Reviews

Jazz influenced by cinema, geography and youthful zeal.

Cowboys & Frenchmen – Rodeo [TrackList follows] – Outside In Music 1502, 52:42 [11/4/15] ***1/2:

(Ethan Helm – alto saxophone, flute, clarinet; Owen Broder – alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Chris Ziemba – piano; Ethan O’Reilly – bass; Matt Honor – drums)

Jazz musicians are influenced by other jazz artists. Filmmakers are inspired by other movie directors. But the world being what it is there are numerous facets which can motivate someone to create. For example, there is the New York City jazz quintet, Cowboys & Frenchmen. The group’s name comes from a David Lynch 1988 short film called The Cowboy and The Frenchman. On the band’s 52-minute debut, Rodeo, Cowboys & Frenchmen combine original material with unexpected covers by the Beatles and from the folk/country field. Some pieces represent musical portraits of European landscapes, while others allude to Buddhism. Cowboys & Frenchmen consists of multi-horn players Ethan Helm (alto saxophone, flute, and clarinet) and Owen Broder (alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet); pianist Chris Ziemba; bassist Ethan O’Reilly; and drummer Matt Honor. Co-leader Broder has performed with Trio Globo, and the Gil Evans Project. Ziemba, Honor and the other co-leader, Helm, were also featured in the Gil Evans Project. O’Reilly’s résumé includes Mulgrew Miller, Jimmy Heath, Freddy Cole, Steve Wilson and others.

Like Lynch, Cowboys & Frenchmen prefer to produce work which is distinctive, unconventional and challenges expectations. That’s not to say Cowboys & Frenchmen don’t follow or underscore jazz traditions…they just don’t mind doing jazz which mixes both familiarity and forwardness. Lynch isn’t the fivesome’s only cinematic stimulus; the Coen Brothers’ are another. That appears to be one reason the group decided to reinterpret “Man of Constant Sorrow” (made famous in the 2000 Coen Brother’s project, O Brother, Where Art Thou?). But those acquainted with the country/folk cut (done by many, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Stanley Brothers) may not recognize the Cowboys & Frenchmen nine-minute translation. The rhythmic foundation is offbeat, the melody is not straightforward, and there is plenty of room for explorative touches and solos which veer away from the main theme. However, the Lennon/McCartney song, “Because,” will be immediately identifiable to any Beatles’ fan. The Cowboys & Frenchmen version of “Because” retains a somewhat somber lyricism, while the Beatles’ three-part vocal harmonies are recast by Helm and Broder’s twinned saxes. Ziemba is the foremost instrumental voice throughout, redoing the chords on acoustic piano, which the Beatles had done on harpsichord.

The original material is also engaging and absorbing. Helm’s nearly eight-minute opener, “Jazz Styles,” evokes the vibrancy of New York City. Despite the title, the piece does not echo divergent jazz modes (although there are some musical passages which seem to suggest Ellington). Rather “Jazz Styles” symbolizes the ever-changing socio-cultural settings of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and other NYC environs. Broder’s unhurriedly rolling “King Barry” is supposed to exemplify (or at the very least, bring to mind) the German countryside. Conversely, though, this nine-minute track has a more cosmopolitan gleaning than a rural glimmer. Clarinet helps provide a nuanced mannerism, while Honor’s use of cymbals also signifies a quiet, sedate realm. There’s also thoughtfulness which permeates “Brode’s Abode.” This is the kind of snappy, approachable jazz which is as welcoming as a bottle of wine given in friendship as someone walks into someone else’s apartment. The CD’s most upbeat and cheerful number is Helm’s “More,” where doubled saxes, a rollicking rhythm bed, and kaleidoscopic panning furnishes a fun, sometimes lightly psychedelic frolic (not to mention the occasional exuberant shouts of “More!”). The album concludes with Broder’s subdued “Bells of Mindfulness,” which hints at Buddhist customs. Honor supplies a slow and askew rhythm, while on top there is a melancholy sax ambiance. Typically a solemn tune like this would show up in the middle of an album, but Cowboys & Frenchmen contravene habit by inserting this track as a downcast ending.

TrackList: Jazz Styles; King Barry; A Bridge Inside My Mind; Man of Constant Sorrow; Because; Brode’s Abode; More; Bells of Mindfulness.

—Doug Simpson

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