Brian Woodbury: Variety Orchestra (2004)
Brian Woodbury could not have chosen a better title for Variety Orchestra. Combining elements of Mexican-inflected polka, roots Americana, big band, romanticism, Lennon Sisters vocals and much, much more, this music feels strangely alluring for all its swings through a diversity of styles. Eclectic is a word often used to describe music that cannot be pigeon-holed, and clearly there is no way to classify what Woodbury and his Orchestra do; but as varied as the programme is, there seems to be an underlying philosophy, which is to blend genres in new, interesting and engaging ways.
There are other artists who blend styles, but none quite so seamlessly and with complete abandon as Woodbury. “Take the J Train” begins with a ROVA-style saxophone rhythm; a faintly Mexican accordion/violin passage is introduced; then a banjo picks out a bluegrass solo. And all this within the first ninety seconds. There is a certain Zappa-esque irreverence in the way that Woodbury mixes things up. By the end of the piece, genres integrate in a cacophony with saxophone wailing and pedal steel seducing over a broken-up rhythm. One precedent for this music would be Fred Frith’s ‘70s band Henry Cow, although Cow was considerably more difficult. As challenging as Woodbury is he never loses site of captivating his audience. “Jesus Christ Alrighty” merges warped organ, distorted guitar and horns over a move-your-body R&B backdrop.
Another antecedent would be some of John Zorn’s early work, like the The Big Gundown , with its episodic nature, but Woodbury manages to rapidly introduce, discard and then sometimes return to ideas in a way that is equally absurd but completely accessible. There is something oddly appealing about this work, despite its obvious intention to keep one perpetually off guard.
Recorded over the course of thirteen years, the album features performers including violinist Mark Feldman, accordionist Guy Klucevsek, violinist Sarah Parkins and trumpeter Frank London. The music is highly orchestrated—it would have to be—but there are opportunities for improvisation. On “Venice, Italy,” which opens with a solo accordion that leads into a pastoral keyboard/violin/banjo passage that could easily be found on a Gentle Giant disk, before the trumpets take over and move the piece into Cuban territory, again all within the first minute, trombonist Dan Levine gets the opportunity to explore the many nooks and crannies that Woodbury’s shifting rhythms provide.
Listeners looking for something that is challenging, while at the same time full of captivating melodies and rhythms, would do well to check out Brian Woodbury’s Variety Orchestra. Clever without being coy, this album is remarkable for its ability to sound focused despite itself.
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Track Listing: Take the J Train; Mom; Garbanzo Beans; Venice, Italy; Jesus Christ Alrighty; Long May She Wave; Therenody for Kennedy and Connally; Shenandoah/Innsbruck
Personnel: Nick Ariondo (accordion), Guy Klucevsek (accordion), Tom Massucci (accordion), Oren Bloedow (acoustic and electric bass), Conrad Korsch (acoustic and electric bass), Sue Williams (acoustic and electric bass), Marty Cutler (banjo), Marc Muller (banjo, pedal steel guitar), Jonathan Feinberg (drums, percussion), Dan Morris (drums), Kory Grossman (percussion), Kristina Kanders (percussion), Bill Ruyle (percussion), Peter Lurye (piano and keyboards), Elma Mayer (piano and keyboards), David Witham (piano and keyboards), Will Connell (saxophones, winds), Steve Elson (saxophones, winds), Aaron Heick (saxophones, winds), Kurt Hoffman (saxophones, winds), Dan Levine (trombone), Frank London (trumpet, flugelhorn), Jim O