Only the most committed of "B horror movie fans would catch guitarist and erstwhile eccentric Eugene Chadbourne's reference to Wes Craven's early low-budget flick The Hills Have Eyes. With titles in his immense catalogue including Terror Has Some Strange Kinfolk, Horror, Pt. 1: Tribute to Horror Monsters and Bad Luck and Shockabilly Baby, it's clear that horror movies and Chadbourne have more than a passing acquaintance. But the title to his new release is even more significant. After sending Shockabilly Baby to a number of horror film directors including Craven, it seems that only Craven wrote back.
It also turns out that Craven is quite the music fan and acoustic guitarist himself. So not only did Craven invite Chadbourne to the set of his recently released werewolf flick Curseda title that ultimately referred as much to the production as the film's storybut he loaned Chadbourne his vintage Gibson acoustic guitar for the session that would ultimately become The Hills Have Jazz.
Unusually for Chadbourne, not only does he not sing on the disc (Chadbourne writes, in his liner notes, "Chet Baker and I have something in common, I think: we both sing as well as play, and according to many critics we both sing badly ), but for the first time his set list is comprised completely of jazz compositions written by artists as widely spread stylistically as Oliver Lake, Roscoe Mitchell, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, and Count Basie. With the exception of drummer Richie West, the tunes are played by whoever happened to be around at the time, including electric guitarist Carey Fosse, harmonicist Bill Barrett, cornetist/flautist Dan Clucas, and saxophonist Brian Walsh.
So, what to make of a rather slapdash collection of people playing jazz tunes that are, for the most part, off the beaten path? Well, for one thing, this is outrageously free music. The Dolphy, Coltrane, and Basie tunes do have recognizable themes, but once they are dispensed with, so are more recognizable things like time and conventional harmony. No bassist to lock into any kind of rhythm with West. While Chadbourne may occasionally create a walking bass line, and he sometimes threads chordal accompaniment behind whoever is the dominant soloist at the time, they're tenuous at best.
The Hills Have Jazz needs to be considered, like many of Chadbourne's works, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. That doesn't mean these aren't some serious free players; but the approach is so slaphappy, and it has such a strong ambience of a bunch of folks drifting in and out of a living room jam sessionalbeit an absolutely freaky weird onethat it's hard to know when to shut up and get serious and when to burst out with a guffaw.
And maybe that's the point. Endlessly intriguing and unequivocally challenging to anyone looking for any semblance of normalcy, The Hills Have Jazz is a completely unique experience, and it might be just as visceral and frightening as the movie from whence it came.
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Personnel: Eugene Chadbourne (acoustic guitar, banjo), Richie West (drums), Brian Walsh (tenor saxophone), Carey Fosse (electric guitar), Bill Barrett (harmonica), Dan Clucas (cornet, flute)