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The New Mellow Edwards: Big Choantza

Troy Collins By

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The New Mellow Edwards, an eclectic ensemble signed to artist-run, Brooklyn-based Skirl Records, is led by trombonist Curtis Hasslebring, who draws upon a variety of influences for his unorthodox jazz compositions, including neo-classical formalism, elastic funk and tuneful indie rock.

One of Hasselbring's numerous side-projects, The New Mellow Edwards' impressive pedigree features clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Chris Speed (Human Feel, yeah NO), bassist Trevor Dunn (Fantomas, John Zorn) and drummer/percussionist John Hollenbeck (Claudia Quintet, Meredith Monk). Big Choantza, their second recording, finds the foursome exploring variations on the expansive vistas of their self-titled debut, The New Mellow Edwards (Skirl, 2006).

Embracing multiple genres and subtle electro-acoustic textures, the album veers from ebullient to austere. "Helkakelka, Helkakelka" is a riot of bristling, stop-start carnival rhythms and thorny unison themes, interrupted by a string of spasmodic solos from Hasselbring's blustery trombone and Speed's coarse tenor. "Annoying Guy" is the inverse, a droning minimalist tone poem awash in moody atmospherics.

Hasselbring's passion for indie rock is revealed on the punning "Sacks on the Beach," an anthemic rave-up driven by a steady eighth-note bass line that recalls early nineties indie rock legends The Pixies, whose "Ana" was covered on the quartet's previous session. Delving further into the genre, they invest a crackling instrumental cover of Sonic Youth's punky diatribe "Youth Against Fascism" with ecstatic brio.

Thriving on contrasting dynamics, Hasselbring's experiences in Either/Orchestra and Ken Schaphorst's Big Band can be heard in his cantilevered arrangements and contrapuntal charts. Following the brisk fanfare of the title track, "First Loser" builds gracefully, demonstrating the band's rhythmic acuity. Book-ended by languid funk vamps, the tune spotlights Speed's circuitous clarinet cadences, climaxing with the leader's effusive horn soaring over a buoyant Afro-Latin groove. The episodic "Good Job" threads staggered pointillist discourse into lush harmonies while "Backfat Vs. Fumi" encapsulates Hasselbring's multifarious talents. Modulating from cinematic introspection to syncopated cop show funk, the tune eventually deconstructs, with Dunn and Hollenbeck's oblique, fractured meters impelling Speed's cathartic tenor volleys.

Elevated by the stellar interpretations of his all-star band, Hasselbring's idiosyncratic compositions find accord in a set brimming with congenial interplay. Diverse, but not dilettantish, Hasselbring's mercurial writing is the real star of Big Choantza—a splendid sophomore effort from an under-sung composer.

Track Listing: Big Choantza; First Loser; Helkakelka, Helkakelka; Sacks on the Beach; Large Detective; Annoying Guy; Youth Against Fascism; Good Job; Backfat Vs. Fumi.

Personnel: Curtis Hasselbring: trombone; Chris Speed: clarinet and tenor saxophone; Trevor Dunn: acoustic bass; John Hollenbeck: drums and percussion.

Title: Big Choantza | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Skirl Records

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