Travis Sullivan’s Björkestra – I Go Humble – Zoho ZM201312, 62:06 (Distr. by Allegro) [10/8/13] ****:
(Travis Sullivan – alto saxophone, arranger, coordinator, co-producer; Becca Stevens – vocals; Ian Cook – laptop programming; Sean Nowell – tenor saxophone (arranger, track 5); Lauren Sevian – baritone saxophone; Ryan Keberle, Alan Ferber – trombone; Kevin Bryan, Eli Asher, Kelly Pratt (arranger, track 3) – trumpet; Art Hirahara – piano; Yoshi Waki – bass; Joe Abbatantuno – drums)
At first, it may appear like an amusing idea for an imaginary ensemble: a jazz big band which carves out a singular niche by only covering the music by idiosyncratic alternative music artist Björk. But this is no joke. For a decade (more or less), alto saxophonist Travis Sullivan has led his large, New York City-based Björkestra, which lives by the byline “big band interpretations of Björk.” The hour-long I Go Humble (named after an obscure Björk B-side) is the group’s second release, following 2008’s Enjoy! (Koch), and is the first for the Zoho label, and also the orchestra’s first live album (taped at NYC venue Jazz Standard March 3 and 4, 2009). I Go Humble came out late in 2013, but since it probably fell under the radar of most listeners, it’s ripe for discovery
Sullivan acknowledges he’s not completely sure why he’s magnetically drawn to Björk’s material, but cites her complex melodies, unusual arrangements of electronic and acoustic instruments, distinctive harmonies and grooves, explorative and sometimes experimental songs, but largely Sullivan seems to gravitate to music which has universality, something which focuses on human experience despite genre. It’s that overall richness which permeates the eight tracks which make up I Go Humble.
The Björkestra’s membership has fluctuated over the years (up to 18 on some stage dates, 13 on this record) but certain constituents remain stationary: Sullivan’s innovative arrangements (abetted at times by trombonist Kevin Schmidt [not present on this CD], trumpeter Kelly Pratt, and tenor saxophonist Sean Nowell); and singer Becca Stevens, whose commanding and ascending vocals evoke Björk without imitating Björk’s unique style. Along with their own concerts, the orchestra has performed and/or recorded with artists such as Arcade Fire, Charlie Hunter, the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, and the Saturday Night Live Band.
There are three slightly different versions of tracks from Enjoy!, the other five are translations of songs found on various Björk records. The CD launches with “Hyperballad” (from Björk’s Post, 1995), which inspired Sullivan to write his first big band arrangement of a Björk composition. The striking lyrics, pronounced countermelodies, and ample harmonic structure all provide plenty for Sullivan’s fertile reconstruction. Improvisation extends the melody, (Sullivan takes the main solo spotlight), while a 7/8 time signature supplies an additional perception of alacrity. Two other pieces from Post are also prominent. The contemporary fairy tale “Isobel,” arranged by Nowell, is one of the few instrumentals in the Björkestra arsenal. “Isobel” begins with an open and sparse feel accentuated by lilting bass, percussive elements, and gradually the horns advance and the tempo climbs until the cut builds to a solo-infected frenzy with Sullivan and Nowell’s battling, twinned saxes; the mood abruptly shifts when pianist Art Hirahara serves up a transcendent solo; and then the group swings back to the head for the moving conclusion. The heftiest number is “Army of Me,” where the Björkestra bristles with dissonant aggression which mirrors the drubbing industrial beat, intimidating synth bass and forceful lyrics on Björk’s original. Nowell furnishes a high-energy tenor sax solo, while Sullivan screeches toward free jazz terrain. However, the prevailing groove (particularly in the second half) and Stevens’ concentrated vocals keep the song from ever going over the edge.
Pratt’s arranging skills are heard on the unconventional “Hunter,” a sonically adventurous piece from Björk’s 1997 album, Homogenic. Bassist Yoshi Waki starts with an unaccompanied improvisation, and then acoustic and electronic components do a slice and dice which recreates Björk’s abstracted pop/laptop beats blend with Hirahara’s visceral synth; Pratt presents an evocative solo akin to Miles Davis during his Bitches Brew period; aquatic percussion circles underneath; and there is a governing trip/hop stance throughout. Sullivan and his ensemble end with his favorite Björk work, “Jöga,” (also from Homogenic), an emotional tribute to Björk’s homeland, Iceland, and also an homage to her best friend. Here, Sullivan reconstitutes “Jöga” initially as a jazz ballad, but then alters the musical landscape and prods the band into an electronica-rimmed bridge section heightened by temperamental horns and Sullivan’s adaptable alto sax solo.
Sullivan should be commended for trying to bring Bjork’s music to a different audience, who may not necessarily like or even understand Bjork’s alternative pop/rock designs. The Björkestra successfully spans the perceived gap between progressive big band or large ensemble, jazz and experimental dance-inclined pop music. I Go Humble demonstrates that, with the right group of musicians, even the most curious conceptions can result in genuinely intriguing creations.
TrackList: Hyperballad; Venus As a Boy; Hunter; I Go Humble; Isobel; Army of Me; Unravel; Jöga.