How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
Drummer Ben Perowsky is a consummate sideman (Mike Stern, Pat Martino, Dave Douglas, Walter Becker, The Lounge Lizards...) and a fixture of New York’s Knitting Factory scene. His first release as a leader is upon us, and it’s a killer. Along with Scott Colley on double bass and Chris Speed on tenor sax and clarinet, Perowsky serves up some cutting-edge music that sits squarely within the straight-ahead jazz tradition yet points the way toward jazz’s future.
The album — save for one track — was recorded live at the Knitting Factory. In addition to Perowsky’s three originals and one collectively composed tune, we have Charlie Parker’s "Segment," Duke Ellington’s "In A Sentimental Mood," Oliver Messiaen’s "Danse De La Fureur, Pour Les Sept Trompettes" (the one studio cut), and Pink Floyd’s "Money." The Messiaen piece is outstanding — it begins with what sounds like free improv with a hint of 6/8 time, then takes off into an awesome, very complex single-note line played in unison by bass and clarinet, with subtle drumming underneath. The trio transforms a contemporary classical motif into the hippest jazz you’ve ever heard. Their reading of "Segment" is burning, and it makes clear that Charlie Parker’s music remains forever fresh and open to higher levels of exploration.
The Ellington and Floyd tunes are not quite as rewarding. "Sentimental Mood" begins promisingly, with Speed’s haunting, unaccompanied intro and Perowsky’s mallets floating out of tempo. But once the tune gets going, it’s a pretty straightforward rundown of a tune that, while beautiful, is played a tad too often. The loping 7/4 bass line of "Money" lends itself well to this trio’s overall vibe, but jazz covers of rock tunes rarely transcend their novelty. And oddly, rock tunes seem to get covered in twos — pianist Jacky Terrasson also recorded "Money" on his new record, Tony Williams and saxophonist Chris Potter each covered The Beatles’ "Fool on the Hill," pianist Brad Mehldau and vocalist Andy Bey each took a stab at Nick Drake’s "River Man," etc. I’m all for mixing genres, but the rock cover trend seems like a bit of a bandwagon.
To highlight the positive, the album’s opener, "El Destructo," can only be described as badass. It’s an infectious bass line in 10 with driving drums and an angular yet spare sax melody, changing to a jumpy B section in 5, opening up into burning solos and intense group improvisation. The tune swings solidly in tempo yet always totters toward the free and the "out." "Electric Sheep" starts as a slow, ethereal bass ostinato in 6, with Speed on clarinet and Perowsky on brushes. The tune gets really free once Perowsky switches to mallets. Toward the end, he sets up a polyrhythmic groove to serve as a segue into the funky "Pixy99," which features Speed getting some truly weird sounds out of his mouthpiece. A rambunctious, retro-rock sort of drum beat kicks off "Janitor," which settles into a fast funk romp with excellent soloing by Speed and Colley.
There’s about a minute and a half of crowd noise at the end of the CD, complete with a bartender’s authentic shout of "Last Call!" In this and many other ways, the record documents where it’s at in today’s downtown New York jazz scene. Perowsky and his cohorts are leaders in their field.