The Italian term selected by saxophonist Roy Nathanson as the title of his latest CD connotes a hushing of sung or spoken tones, a deceptive name for a recording with so many worthwhile things to say. On Sotto Voce, the Jazz Passengers co-founder leads an idiosyncratic five-piece through an unholy hodgepodge of pop, post bop, hip-hop and poetry. The unusual mixture succeeds on account of the album's democratic approach, which renders soloistic virtuosity secondary to an overall group concept.
Enlisted by Nathanson are two fellow Jazz Passengers, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes and violinist Sam Bardfeld. Both players recompense for the absence of a traditional chordal instrument by serving roles that are largely, though not exclusively, harmonic in nature. Tim Kiah provides dexterous bass work, and in lieu of a drummer is "human beatbox" Napoleon Maddox, whose masterful phonic gymnastics transcend mere novelty value. Each musician provides vocals, though who contributes what is not always clear.
The spoken-word recitations are Nathanson's; delivered in a cool monotone, they range from biographical narrative to abstract poetry. Falling into the former category is the ear-catching opener, "By the Page," in which Nathanson recounts the monetarily driven childhood origins of his literary leanings. Among the tracks that follow, three are covers: the pop song "Sunny" and the showtune "Sunrise, Sunset" (from Fiddler on the Roof) are given characteristically quirky treatments, while Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "The Inflated Tear" receives an impassioned vocal performance and impressionistic new lyrics by Nathanson.
The originals are no less inspired. The tube station setting in "London Story" is vividly brought to life by the band's replication of a subway train's stop-start pace. The sprechstimme of "Kidnapped" scurries through a haze of swift walking bass, pizzicato violin, and trombone improvisation, culminating in a discordant, unanimous wail. The unshakable "Shake" lapses into a '70s crime-film groove once Nathanson has assured us that, despite going broke and losing his hair, he will continue to "shake" and to "slim that slam." The beautifully arranged "Home" is reminiscent of the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile album, while the off-the-cuff finale "It's Alright" is downright danceable.
The engagingly offbeat Sotto Voce casts jazz vocalization in an intriguing new light. Gracing the cover is a glowing blurb from no less a pop luminary than Elvis Costello, from which listeners might assume that the recording has mainstream potential. They would not be mistaken: Nathanson's is an accessible experimentalism, one that eschews both avant-garde elitism and the overproduction of pandering "crossover" jazz.
Personnel: Roy Nathanson: alto and soprano saxophone, voice; Curtis Fowlkes: trombone, singing; Sam Bardfeld: violin, vocals; Tim Kiah: bass, vocals; Napoleon Maddox: human beatbox, vocals.