Le Rex – Escape of the Fire Ants – [TrackList follows] – Cuneiform, Rune 464, 69:10 [4/5/19] ****:
There aren’t many horns/drums jazz outfits outside of the New Orleans area. Some, yes, but it’s not a common configuration in far-flung places. Which makes the Swiss quintet Le Rex somewhat unique, especially for European-based jazz ensembles. The brass-heavy band consists of alto saxophonist Benedikt Reising; tenor saxophonist Mark Stucki; trombonist Andreas Tschopp; tuba player Marc Unternährer; and drummer Rico Baumann. Le Rex’s fourth album, the 69-minute Escape of the Fire Ants is enthusiastic, an often-heady balance of jazz with global influences which range from the Crescent City to Chicago, and from South Africa to Serbia. The 12 originals (three from Tschopp; five by Stucki; one by Unterährer; and three penned by Reising) include plenty of rhythmic positivism, call-and-response horns, memorable melodies and unpredictable moments.
The mostly lengthy tracks (the longest is over eight minutes; the shortest is under four minutes) have a natural, organic ambiance. That is because the band had a strategy before heading into the studio. Stucki explains, “We always play without charts on stage, and for this recording we did the same thing. We took two days every month to learn the music and played small gigs to really get the tunes in shape.” The opening title track showcases how the band innately negotiates intricate arrangements. Tschopp’s upbeat tune has a sprinting velocity with swift and entwined phrases highlighted by Tschopp’s striking higher-register trombone. The second cut, Stucki’s nearly seven-minute “Alimentation Générale” (evidently named after a small Parisian music club) launches with a lyrical horns-only intonation, and then the arrangement ascends when Baumann begins putting in groove layers which are mirrored by the rhythmic horns. Stucki adds a euphoric tenor sax improvisation which supplies a joyous and bright impact. Although Le Rex is known on stage and on records for fast tempos and jubilant performances, the fivesome is equally good at ballads, such as Unternährer’s seven-minute composition, the nuanced “Smoking Flowers,” where Unternährer’s tuba has one of the spotlights. Unternährer states, “It really makes sense in this band. Sometimes I’m the bass, and sometimes another horn carries the low end. This makes it flexible and more interesting.”
Le Rex’s inspirations aren’t all musical. Stucki’s manic, six-minute “Harry Stamper Saves the Day” is a tribute to Bruce Willis’ valiant hero from the 1998 science fiction disaster film Armageddon, about a huge asteroid on a collision course with Earth. The animated arrangement might not be cinematic in scope but certainly shares an impression of celebration akin to the movie’s conclusion. Stucki’s emotive, slower “Elliott’s Theme,” on the other hand, does have a movie-like movement, a sure-footed jauntiness balanced with a poised poignancy. The shortest cut is Reising’s “The Funding,” a bluesy effort which is fueled by distinct resonances from the complementary and contending horns.
The CD closes with two characteristically idiosyncratic Le Rex numbers. Tschopp’s nearly seven-minute “Ballad for an Optimist” ironically and pointedly is not a ballad, although it commences with a delightfully sublime trombone introduction. Gradually the full group joins in and the piece shifts from a slow sway to an exultant romp. Le Rex concludes with Reising’s six-minute “Der Knochige Dürre,” which roughly translates to “The Knochige Drought.” The arrangement is a bit disconcerting and offers a moodier and more chaotic characteristic than previous tracks, especially when Stucki provides an extended Coltrane-esque free-improv solo. An all brass/drums configuration may not appeal to jazz listeners weaned on traditional quartet or quintet formats, but anyone who is attracted to jazz which moves outside the lines should give Le Rex some solid consideration.
Benedikt Reising – alto saxophone; Mark Stucki – tenor saxophone; Andreas Tschopp – trombone; Marc Unternährer – tuba; Rico Baumann – drums
Escape of the Fire Ants
One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy
Harry Stamper Saves the Day
Ballad for an Optimist
Der Knochige Dürre