I looked up "versatile in Webster's and there, believe it or not, was a picture of Frank Macchia. (No, not really, but there could have been.) On Mo' Animals, his graphic "tribute to all creatures big and small, Macchia plays no fewer than fourteen instruments (fifteen including synths) and handles drum programming when necessary. Oh, and he also composed and arranged the music, produced the album, and released it on his own label. For some reason known only to himself, Macchia invited a number of other musicians to take part, and they do their best to avoid stepping on his toes or raining on his parade. I suspect some overdubbing was involved, as even someone as resourceful as Macchia would have trouble playing so many instruments simultaneously (he plays half a dozen including synths on "Lions, as many as five on some other tracks).
Whether or not one can place the various animals with the music that depicts them, it's clear that Macchia has a solid game plan, one that is well executed by him and his stable (pardon the pun) of first-class sidemen. Some of the sounds they produce are straight from the barnyard, others from the jungles, prairies and seas that are the natural habitat of elephants, monkeys, rhinos, lions and whales. To do so, Macchia uses several instruments that aren't often heard, especially in a jazz context, such as the B-flat contrabass clarinet (quite effective on "Pigs ), electric bass clarinet ("Frogs ), bass ocarinas, bass saxophone, and contrabass flute and clarinet.
On the ethereal "Whales, Tracy London's diaphanous wordless vocal is supported solely by Macchia on bass ocarinas, bass and contrabass flutes, and synths. Pianist Billy Childs, bassist Dave Carpenter and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta provide the rhythm on all selections save "Frogs and "Whales, with Childs featured most prominently on the supernal "Bats. "Elephants, Macchia writes, is his "homage to the brass voicing style created by Duke Ellington, and in that he is squarely on target.
While Macchia's concepts are picturesque and always interesting, the ensemble is necessarily dominant, with solos brief and subordinate for the most part. Macchia solos infrequently, although his mastery of the other instruments is indispensable. Other ad libbers include harmonica player Howard Levy ("Hummingbirds"), trombonist Bruce Fowler ("Frogs"), trumpeter Wayne Bergeron ("Elephants ) and Grant Geissman (electric guitar on "Frogs and "Rhinos," banjo on "Chickens ).
Musicianship aside, Macchia's resourcefulness and vision is what carries the day, as he gives the listener a jazz version of Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals or Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, making his point without storyline or narration. The upshot is clearly off the beaten path but never less than engrossing.