An intriguing combination of spoken word, multipart vocal harmonies and adventurous instrumental jazz with a surprising rhythmic twist, Sotto Voce is not unprecedented in saxophonist/composer Roy Nathanson's discography. With trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, Nathanson is co-founder of the long running Jazz Passengers, those erstwhile guardians of postmodern irreverence. Their career over the past decade has found them reinventing the role of vocals in jazz. Beginning with 1994's In Love, which featured a slew of guest vocalists, including further collaborations with Deborah Harry and Elvis Costello, Nathanson's crew has pushed the art of contemporary jazz singing beyond mere nostalgia.
Nathanson assembled a crack band for this session, which was two years in the making. Trombonist Curtis Fowlkes is Nathanson's venerable foil and a silky-smooth vocalist, contrasting with his expressive trombone stylings. A recent Jazz Passenger recruit, violinist Sam Bardfeld, whose recent Periodic Trespasses (FSNT, 2006) featured surreal voice-over narration, fits in seamlessly with these two mercurial pranksters.
The surprise twist arrives courtesy of Napoleon Maddox. A beatboxing MC from the Cincinnati hip-hop/jazz outfit Iswhat?!, Maddox both sings lead and delivers old school beats in lieu of an actual drummer. Though his percussive vocal contributions may at first seem incongruous, they reveal an internal logic. Singing bassist Tim Kiah rounds out the group; when Maddox isn't spitting out funky hip-hop beats, Kiah holds down the rhythmic foundation.
Nathanson's occasional spoken word passages are bolstered by group harmony vocal refrains with Kiah's wandering bass lines driven by Maddox's inventive beat-box vocalizations. Bardfeld's lyrical violin soars and Fowlkes' blustery trombone sputters and dives while the leader's tart alto spirals out circuitous runs through this heady, modernized sound. Nathanson borrows ideas from Dixieland and other pre-war styles, without actually replicating them.
Nathanson's writing and arranging embodies elements of Great American Songbook nostalgia, but never slavishly. His eclectic interests defy easy categorization, as best exemplified by his choice of covers. A funky take on the 1960's R&B hit "Sunny," an epic reinterpretation of Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "The Inflated Tear," and a dramatic reading of "Sunrise, Sunset" (from Fiddler on the Roof) are all highlights on this singular set. Nathanson's originals mine similar depths, from the outright heart on sleeve sentimentality of "Home" to the taut, episodic angularity of "Shake," complete with edgy outré solos.
Utilizing a wicked combination of instrumental and vocal counterpoint, rich vocal harmonies, passionate free-jazz instrumental cadenzas and collective improvisation, this is intimate ensemble music of a highly advanced but conceptually playful nature. Equal parts carnival excess, vaudeville showmanship and Tin Pan Alley smarts, Sotto Voce finds Nathanson and company delivering what may be the year's most unusual and intriguing album.
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.