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SLUGish Ensemble – An Eight Out of Nine [TrackList follows] – Slow & Steady SS01 46:00 [10/5/18] ****:

Multi-reedist Steven Lugerner isn’t a traditionalist, although some things he does might seem traditional. When the Bay Area leader put together his SLUGish Ensemble’s debut, the 46-minute An Eight Out of Nine, he did what many jazz artists have done: he chose nostalgic music from some of his favorite musicians. Lugerner admits, “The collection of songs you hear on this album are all songs that have been deeply embedded in my musical ethos, play after play.” However, the seven tracks are not jazz standards nor do they emanate from the Great American Songbook or Tin Pan Alley. Rather, the young Bay Area musician picked tunes from indie rock bands who formed in the early 2000s, such as Wye Out, My Brightest Diamond, The Velvet Teen and Beach House. This ‘non-jazz’ repertoire has an explorative and unique approach which nevertheless has a steady jazz standpoint. To fulfill a spontaneous methodology, Lugerner recreated the arrangements from memory instead of re-listening to the original compositions.

While the ten-member group includes classic jazz instruments such as sax, clarinet, drums, flute, piano, guitar, trombone, trumpet and more, the way Lugerner used these instruments in the studio is not standard operating procedure. First, Lugerner booked time at Fantasy Studios and brought in bassist Todd Sickafoose (his long credits include Ron Miles, Nels Cline, Myra Melford and loads more); drummer Allison Miller (seven solo releases; she’s performed with Sickafoose, Ani DiFranco, Natalie Merchant and Doctor Lonnie Smith); and pianist Carmen Staaf (she is in two bands with Miller; and is Dee Dee Bridgewater’s musical director). This core assemblage taped the foundational layer of Lugerner’s arrangements. Then Lugerner traveled to his family’s cabin and overdubbed all his horn parts. Phase three comprised other musicians who did additional overdubs of horns, cello, vibes and guitar. Lugerner explains, “I purposefully wanted to produce the album in a way that rubbed against the established process of many jazz recordings.” An Eight Out of Nine was issued as a four-panel digipak CD; high-quality digital downloads; and a limited-edition vinyl LP. This review refers to the CD version.

An Eight Out of Nine is one of the most adventurous jazz covers albums which came out in the past year. Six cuts are covers. Lugerner contributes one original, the quietly swinging title track. The tentet opens with an eight-minute, cyclical rendition of “The Tower,” from Wye Oak’s 2014 record, Shriek. During this piece—as well as most of the other numbers—Lugerner echoes a vocal effect by using the lower register of his reeds, specifically bass clarinet and baritone saxophone. Lugerner declares those instruments, “Speak to me on a more primal level. I feel more connected to the human voice.” This stylistic precept provides a strong, low melodic undertow. SLUGish Ensemble bubbles through a mellifluous translation of My Brightest Diamond’s “Be Brave,” from the band’s 2001 offering, All Things Will Unwind. Highlights of “Be Brave” include a memorable tenor sax improvisation from Daniel Rotem (currently on the faculty at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts), as well as some fine interplay between Lugerner’s clarinet and the massed brass. The static-spiked electronic/guitar effects which conclude “Be Brave” hints at the track’s indie rock source. SLUGish Ensemble also redo My Brightest Diamond’s “Looking at the Sun,” from the group’s 2014 effort, This Is My Hand. Max Miller-Loran’s trumpet, Miller’s military-like cadence and the interlaced brass horns all deliver a rhythmic and melodic flow which sustains the cut’s slightly somber semblance.

Portrait Stephen LugernerA definite highpoint is the elegiac interpretation of The Velvet Teen’s “Red, Like Roses,” which comes from the 2002 alt-rock project, Out of the Fierce Parade. “Red, Like Roses” commences with Lugerner and Staaf’s sax/piano duet and then more horns, drums and bass enter and lift the arrangement into a mid-tempo, rock-tinted creation. Although this rendering obviously does not have a singer, Lugerner manages to mirror the downcast demeanor of the melancholy lyrics and the song’s moodiness, especially via his baritone sax and Sickafoose’s poetical bass lines. SLUGish Ensemble end with Beach House’s slowly-enacted “Bluebird,” from Beach House’s 2015 album, Depression Cherry. The comparatively simple melodic line repeats nicely throughout the playful arrangement which expertly balances drums, acoustic piano, the horns, bass, guitar, vibes and cello. While there are various instruments all playing together the arrangement never appears too busy, overcrowded or squeezed in. An Eight Out of Nine is a masterful set of tunes which demonstrates how an artist’s special relationship with songs—any array of songs, including recent indie rock ones—can become a catalyst for notable jazz interpolations. Most people probably did not discover SLUGish Ensemble’s An Eight Out of Nine when this came out in early October. Give it go.

Steven Lugerner – co-producer, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, clarinet, flute, alto flute; Carmen Staaf – piano, Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer; Todd Sickafoose – acoustic bass, co-producer; Allison Miller – drumset; Justin Rock – electric and acoustic guitar; Danny Lubin-Laden – trombone; Max Miller-Loran – trumpet; Mark Clifford – vibraphone; Crystal Pascucci – cello; Daniel Rotem – tenor saxophone (soloist on track 2)

TrackList:
The Tower
Be Brave
An Eight Out of Nine
Prisoners
Red, Like Roses
Looking at the Sun
Bluebird

—Doug Simpson

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