How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
The Flail is a terrific young quintet that feels like a cooperative, but is compositionally led, at least on Never Fear, by trumpeter Dan Blankinship. The band takes the current language of modern jazz and gives it a very personal twist that's full of energy and humor, telling stories along the way by using loose arrangements that allow for the maximum interaction between the band members without letting them fall into chaos.
An earlier self-released recording from 2002, Live in France, emphasized the organic and quirky nature of the group with long group improvisations lasting upwards of nineteen minutes. Never Fear feels a bit more connected to the hard bop style, but it's anything but retro, with enough twists and turns to make you smile or laugh out loud.
In the notes from Live in France, an attempt is made to explain the origins of the band's name as an way to accept the nature of their musical journey: they might not know exactly where they are going and hence sometimes flail around. This "learning by doing" effort can easily be seen in the stylistic difference between the current album and the earlier one.
Regardless of whether you might have a preference, as I do, for the total originality of the earlier album, the band's current flailing has resulted in Never Fear, which feels like a "we can do that too" kind of effort in parts. The first three tracks, "As You Like," "Don't Ask" and "Life before the Rerun," lead one to think about nice compositions, a solid group sound and tart, tight playing, including some killer burning on the latter piece.
However, with "Once," Dan Blankinship brings the band back to more original territory that echoes Live in France. At eleven minutes, very much the longest track, "Once" has the group, particularly Stephan Moutot on tenor sax, telling much more of a story rather than just blowing against a nice tune; this is something to get lost in and relax for the duration of the trip.
"Fraggle's Car Got Toad" (hah!?) has more of the "sound of surprise" that is so appealing. Starting with a very weird solo piano introduction by Brian Marsella that has references to many different styles of music, past and present, it takes off and cooks with the addition of a driving walking bass by Reid Taylor, only to change into a slinky, bluesy, funky thing that brings on a smile.
Title tunes and their placement say a lot, and ending with "Never Fear" might just be the band's way of summing up where it is right now. Shifting gears as the music is driven by Taylor's strong bass, the players tell another musical tale. The Flail is a very interesting band that is not afraid to swing it now and then, making some deep, thoughtful and yes, fun music.
Track Listing: As You Like; Don't Ask; Life before the Rerun; Once; Just About to Be; Butterscotch; Fraggle's Car Got Toad; We Travel; Never Fear.
Personnel: Dan Blankinship: trumpet; Stephan Moutot: tenor and soprano saxophone; Brian Marsella:
piano; Reid Taylor: bass; Matt Zebroski: drums.