How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
Jacob Duncan composed the music of this very diverse set of jazz interfacing with other musics. He also penned the words for the five songs with vocals. A startlingly able altoist, the musicianship of this Louisville, Kentucky ensemble matches him at Premier League standard.
Todd Hildreth's pianistic virtuosity on the initially Kurt Weill-ish "Armed Ant War" is worthy of Bösendorfer and Bartok in a big hall. Demonstrating wit and swing, he's a startling pianist with resources from dirt to religiosity on B3 organ, also playing accordion on the Weill-cum-Tango title track. Jason Thiemann's drumming is equally commendable.
Amber Estes sings "Passage with a young girl's brio, musing to herself or speaking informally to the Almighty and echoed by a neo-Klezmer choir. The unusually detailed modification of mood and an overall tendency for the music to come from unusual angles initially disguisewith fun, parody and non-routine instrumentationmainstream virtues of jazz colored by, and even parodying, jazz-influenced idioms. Chris Fortner's trombone appears suddenly as a brilliant surprise. Besides Duncan's alto and his clarinet played over a "la-la chorus, this tune demonstrates a rare gift for compositional development.
The band's sometime alumnus Norah Jones guests with class, while Estes isn't outclassed. The singers make plain Duncan's concern for vocal quality in horn solos and his tendency as an improviser to comment on the lyrics (he's a better musician than wordsmith). The obvious is avoided where exceptionally plaintive high register playing echoes the lyric's expressed desire to "touch the sky.
"Strange New Figurine" has a lyrical prelude, a neo-Ellingtonian (grandchild of "Caravan") second section, and a spoken vocal through walkie-talkie accompanied by vocalese like Ellington's "Transblucency." "Dreams features odd instrumentation and an inspired three reeds-plus-trombone arrangement. After the vocal, Duncan's alto develops intensity without noise over Hildreth's beautiful piano.
The title track has more "transblucency -singing over polyrhythms. Hildreth's Tango-flavored and Weill-inspired accordion supports Craig Wagner's acoustic guitar, which represents one facet of his versatility. Duncan's ingenuity doesn't take a rest: after the instrumental center the lyric is resumednot following the theme or melody but, instead, a distinct part beside the instruments in the ensemble.
Kazoo sounds introduce "Slush Pump," a clang-clang contrived between organ and guitar that builds tension in an ungainly riffing phrase. The tension is finally relieved through interplay between Duncan's alto and Aaron Kinman's tenorthe old free jazz bit, without self-indulgence. "Happiest Man" has an introductory ensemble more African than Caribbean in sound. It's a feature for Craig Wagner's acoustic-cum-mandolin-sounding guitar, sometimes duetting with Sonny Stephens' bass guitar. Complex fugal counterpoint with occasional phrasing out of country string music leads to a mellow ending.
A fraction of this set's attention to detail could have done things for other CDs I've reviewed. Overall realized musical quality beyond amazing with novel displays of musical talent and application? Not the easiest question. Good enough.
Track Listing: Armed Ant War; Passage; Lonely Lament; Strange New Figurine; Dreams; Last Exit Angel; Slush Pump; Happiest Man.
Personnel: Jacob Duncan: alto saxophone, flute, clarinet, glass, paper, cell phones; Sonny Stephens: electric and acoustic bass, yarn and electrical cords; Jason Tiemann: drums, percussion; Craig Wagner: guitars and percussion; Todd Hildreth: piano, organ, accordion; Josh Toppass: baritone sax; Chris Fortner: trombone, trumpet, bottles; Aaron Kinman: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Amber Estes: vocal; Norah Jones: vocal.