A Post-Modern Renaissance Man, West Coast bassist Steuart Liebig is a classically trained composer with numerous pieces to his credit, from orchestral scores to works for unaccompanied contrabassguitar. Liebig calls upon myriad sources as inspiration for his varied projects, from his formative experiences in blues and rock bands to early sideman gigs with soul jazz pianist Les McCann and free saxophonist Julius Hemphill.
Liebig brings his expansive compositional knowledge to American roots music on Always Outnumbered, the debut recording of the recently formed Tee-Tot Quartet (named after bluesman Rufus Payne, an early mentor to Hank Williams Sr.). Similar to The Mentones (another of his many ensembles), the Tee-Tot Quartet combines traditional American roots music with free improvisation, fusing abstracted variations on early blues and jazz styles with pastoral Americana and brief detours into free jazz.
Inspired by the rousing Dixieland of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives, the soulful blues of Skip James, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters as well as the sublime work of country pioneer Hank Williams and jazz modernist Charles Mingus, the diverse session encompasses a wealth of moods that range from haunting, cinematic ballads to angular Beefheartian blues, bolstered by a penchant for bursts of free form chaos.
The leader's six string fretless electric contrabassguitar, an instrument of expansive tonal qualities, serves as the quartet's harmonic fulcrum. Liebig's elastic bass lines and fluid melodic contours provide the unit with an unwavering foundation, supported by Mentones drummer Joseph Berardi's buoyant trap set rhythms.
The unorthodox front-line pairs Scot Ray's electrified dobro with Dan Clucas' expressive cornet. Ray (also an accomplished trombonist) generates a kaleidoscopic array of sound with his amplified dobro; from languid slides to fragmentary picking, his instrument's resonator hums with ghostly blues inflection one minute, scintillating crystalline shards the next. Dan Clucas' expressionistic approach resides in the same continuum as Cootie Williams and Lester Bowie; his blustery phrases spiral into a thicket of chattering growls and pungent slurs when not plying plangent, muted cadences.
With their catchy melodies, countrified twang and bluesy demeanor, the Tee-Tot Quartet belongs to a long line of folk/blues deconstructionists. At their most ebullient, their quirky melodic sensibility conjures the surreal Americana of Bill Frisell's collaborations with Ron Miles, as well as Dave Tronzo's mercurial work with Steven Bernstein, while the more tortuous excursions invoke the oblique angles and jagged rhythms popularized by such luminaries as Fred Frith and Curlew. Rough around the edges yet highly accessible, Always Outnumbered is one of Liebig's most enjoyable albums in a growing discography.
Personnel: Steuart Liebig: contrabassguitar; Dan Clucas: cornet; Scot Ray: dobro; Joseph Berardi: drums, percussion.