The sheer improbability of Vitamin F alone is almost reason enough to savor it. But this is one heck of a great jazz recording, so Fontanelle's back story is worth pondering. Formed out of the ruins of Jessamine, one of the few Seattle bands from the mid-1990s to buck the grunge craze, Fontanelle recorded three albums in the early 2000s before moving on to other projects. Co-led by drummer Mat Morgan, keyboardists Brian Foote and Paul Dickow, multi- instrumentalist Sandy Brown
, and guitarist Rex Ritter, Fontanelle's abiding musical interests include Krautrock, psychedelia, avant-garde electronic music and 1980s synth-pop. Vitamin F is the band's first release in over a decade. Vitamin F's producer and engineer, Randall Dunn, has worked primarily with extreme metal bands, though he's also produced records by jazz artists and by musical iconoclasts such as Sun City Girls, Earth and Secret Chiefs. The record label, Southern Lord, is best known as the home of über-heavy doom, sludge and black metal bands such as Sleep, Boris and Sunn O))). In other words, this is a pretty unlikely bunch to be dabbling in funky cosmic jazz-rock fusion music.
Fontanelle's earlier recordings sound a bit like what Tortoise
was doing around the same timea dreamy sort of instrumental minimalist rock with lots of analog keys, funky/jazzy drums, interlocking guitars and a smattering of electronic elements that belied the group's abiding interest in IDM and musique concrete. Improvisation and computer-aided sound editing were also part of the band's aesthetic. And there are some strong indicators of an interest in the sorts of things that Herbie Hancock
were up to in the early 1970s. That said, these earlier LPs had a decidedly indie-rock feel to them. By contrast, Vitamin F plays out like a love letter to that forward-looking brand of cosmic fusion, as exemplified by Herbie Hancock's Sextant LP (Columbia, 1973), where jazz, funk, avant-electronics, African music, and psychedelia collided and combined.
The playing throughout Vitamin F is first rate, as are the band's original compositions. Morgan's subtle drumming is spot-on; his limber, funky and spare style is tantalizingly close to Billy Hart
's work with Hancock's "Mwandishi" band. Andy Brown's imaginative synthesizer textures are also quite evocative of the sound worlds created by Patrick Gleeson for Hancock's genre-defining recordings with that band. Foote and Dickow underpin the proceedings with continually bubbling Rhodes, clavinet and Farfisa, occasionally stepping out for a solo. The featured soloists on Vitamin F, however, are a cadre of truly well-selected ringers from the jazz world; saxophonists Skerik
. Carter, Jef Brown and Teuber, in particular, play key roles throughout the album. Carter gets a lot of leads and sounds a lot like late 1960s vintage Miles Davis, electronic accoutrements and all. This is not a criticism; you can't be a trumpeter in this sort of music and not sound like Davis. Yet he clearly has his own ideas, as evidenced by his solos on "Ataxia" and "Watermelon Hands." Teuber plays a variety of reeds throughout Vitamin F, but his work on the flute and bass clarinet is incredibly effective. On the title track, "The Adjacent Possible," and "Traumaturge" he evokes Bennie Maupin
's work with Davis, Eddie Henderson and Herbie Hancock.
The end result, coming out of left field as it does, is fascinating. Though the music evokes the salad days of experimental jazz-rock, it isn't an anatomically correct re-creation. And it's not a "rock guys try their hand at jazz" sort of album, either. Not for one second does any of this music sound like they got in over their head. If anything, the spareness and spaciousness of the compositions and solos throughout Vitamin F impart a swaggering sense of self- assurance. Just listen to "When The Fire Hits The Forest." This is the way it's supposed to be done. And Vitamin F is not just another electric Davis tribute. Sure, it borrows a bit from On The Corner (Columbia, 1972), but it does so in ways that are really fresh, with a sense of discovery and adventure that is readily palpable.
Track Listing: Watermelon Hands; The Adjacent Possible; Vitamin F; Traumaturge; When
the Fire Hits the Forest; Ataxia; Reassimilated.
Personnel: Andy Brown: Arp 2600 synthesizer, bass, clavinet; Jef Brown: baritone
& soprano saxophones; Dave Carter: trumpet; Gentry Densley: guitar;
Paul Dickow: Farfisa organ, Fender Rhodes, vibraphone; Brian Foote:
Wurlitzer electric piano; Steve Moore: trombone; Mat Morgan: drums;
Borg Norum: gong, percussion; Rex Ritter: bass, guitar; Skerik:
soprano saxophone; Hans Teuber: bass clarinet, alto flute, alto,
tenor, and soprano saxophones; Randall Dunn: loops.