Daniel Bennett Group: Peace And Stability Among Bears (2011)
The album art (a bear bedecked in Wild West accouterments) and song titles ("Farmer Joe Was A Bear," "Dogs Of Our Time") of Daniel Bennett Group's Peace & Stability Among Bears promise a goodif cartoonishtime. What's going on in the music, however, is something altogether different. The quartet performance led by reeds player Bennett sounds light at first blush but is, in fact, pretty weighty business, welcoming and aesthetically coherent. Three elements of this success have nothing to do with bear sheriffs.
First is the musical formula. Several of the tunes begin with Chris Hersch's solo electric guitar, playing an attractive figure, to be joined by Bennett, followed by bassist Jason Davis and drummer Rick Landwehr. The whole is rigorously built around interlocking rhythmic patterns, with sudden-stop shifts in time signatures overlaid by swirling melodies. These building blocks call to mind minimalist composers like Steve Reich, but also, in their combination of electric guitar and polyrhythms, West African pop music.
Bennett restricts himself to a fairly circumscribed soloing template, sticking to fairly narrow sets of notes, and sticking, too, to the rhythm. The rhythmic responsibility of Bennett's soloing is strikingly laid bare in "The Village," which finds Bennett alone over cacophonous and pulse-less carnival noise. When the drum and bass come in with a characteristically complicated and catchy rhythm, they underscore that Bennett, in the midst of his swooping and free improvisation, has been explicitly marking the tempo all along.
A second ingredient is earnest folkloric music. Songs sometimes have a twinge of sadness, restrained emotion not quite masking depth of feeling ("Ghost," "Andrew Variations"). In their reliance on traditional-sounding themesas well as the higher register of Bennett's axesthe group recalls clarinetist Andy Biskin's 2006 Strudelmedia experiments, Trio Tragico and Early American: The Melodies of Stephen Foster.
Sometimes this traditionalism veers into shtick, especially when the group abandons the minimalist-African formula. "Arizona," for example, begins with Hersch and Bennett playing a forthright cowboy tune, but the country drumming sounds deliberately corny (Hersch's deliciously idiomatic guitar solo, meanwhile, plucks and slides like we're in Fresno). Similarly, "Dogs Of Our Time," flute-led and a bit over-the-top Olde English, could be mistaken for Jethro Tull pastiche.
Finally, the record incorporates aesthetic elements from rock and roll. Not Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone, who so charged the imagination of the jazz-fusion generation; rather, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, the Police, Radiohead and hundreds more, ubiquitous in the childhood listening of a younger group of players. Some of these haunting solo-guitar intros would not have sounded out of place in 1970s FM radio. In this sense, Bennett's closest relatives are Todd Sickafoose's Tiny Resistors (Cryptogramophone, 2008) and Jeremy Udden's Plainville (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2009), and that's pretty good company.
The faux-Jamaican closer, "Bears in a Covered Wagon," is a delightful coda, not quite of the record rhythmically, thematically. It's a cliffhanger, and an invitation to stay tuned for the next episode.
Track Listing: The Local Sheriff; The Lost Treasure Of Lunta; Arizona; Ghost; Andrew Variations; Dogs Of Our Time; Farmer Joe Was A Bear; The Village; Open; Bears In A Covered Wagon.
Personnel: Daniel Bennett: alto saxophone, flute, clarinet; Chris Hersch: guitar; Jason Davis: bass; Rick Landwehr: drums.