Can we please retire the old cliché about jazz from Los Angeles being limp, wan and bland? One listen to pianist Cameron Graves' slamming metal-jazz or to the jittery complexity of David Binney's recent releases should be enough to torch that outdated canard. Now comes bassist Billy Mohler with Anatomy, 43 minutes of amped-up, torqued-out energy that pulses with the elevated heart-rate of first-wave punk rock.
That's no accident. Mohler is a pop music pro, a Grammy nominee whose resume glitters with names like Liz Phair, Lady Gaga, Sia and Steven Tyler. He's a member of the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex, a side project of the The Smashing Pumpkins' drummer, where he plays alongside Chris Speed, whose leathery tenor saxophone shares the front line with trumpeter Shane Endsley. As a member of Kneebody, another L.A. band, Endsley is at home in the borderlands where jazz, punk and electronics tussle on equal terms. Kneebody drummer Nate Wood completes Mohler's pianoless quartet, and his churning restlessness is essential to Anatomy's sound. If Jack DeJohnette had come up in SoCal pop/punk bands, he might have sounded like this.
Wood and Mohler have been friends since childhood and their hookup is airtight. The bassist likes to begin songs by setting a fidget-spinner ostinato in motion then hurtle forward with Wood in a hair-trigger game of musical Mario Kart. On top, the heads are insistent, often modal and voiced in unison. They push their way through the jostling rhythm led by Endsley's golden searchlight tone. His solo turns soar with focused power while Speed makes gritty arguments on tenor. They are excellent foils for each other.
Mohler's fondness for vamps recalls the Dave Holland bands of the 1980s and '90s, but dialed up to reflect the stress and velocity of urban life in the 2020s. Yet under the ceaseless, whirling activity of this music lies an anxiety withmaybe even a rebuke ofthe tension and emptiness of existence in our always-on, always-hustling world. If this world was created in California, it's fitting that Billy Mohler's tough-minded and urgent music comes straight outta L.A.
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