After devoting a number of his recordings on the Playscape label to the songbooks of Thelonious Monk (Sphere Essence: Another Side of Monk, 2003), Billy Strayhorn (Satin Doll, 2017) and even Elvis Presley (Elvis Never Left the Building, 2014), pianist Peter Madsen has since sought out literary texts for inspiration. 2018 was a particularly fruitful year, as Never Bet the Devil Your Head investigated the macabre works of Edgar Allan Poe, while I Ching went in a more philosophical direction by drawing from the wisdom of the East. Now, with Curiouser and Curiouser, it is Alice in Wonderland which provides a leaping-off point for Madsen's musical adventures. It's a perfect choice, really, since Lewis Carroll's uniquely off-kilter vision is a natural fit with Madsen's own ready-for-anything sensibility.
Madsen's band on Curiouser and Curiouser, the Storytellers, is the jazz-quartet core of his Seven Sins Ensemble, which incorporated a string quartet to fine effect on Never Bet the Devil Your Head. Without the strings, we are treated to a superb small-group sound, with Madsen joined by trumpeter Herbert Walser, bassist Herwig Hammerl and drummer Martin Grabher. The four navigate Madsen's whip-smart compositions with aplomb, and their interactions are always stimulating.
With twelve pieces, most residing in the six-to-seven-minute range, there's a lot of music on hand. But Madsen is not one to waste notes, so his well-designed tunes more than justify their length. The opener, "Alice," has the feel of a Kenny Wheeler composition, with a winsome melody developed by Walser that sticks in the memory long after the tune is over. It also reveals Walser's sensitivity and lyricism, which are in evidence on all of these tracks, but especially on pensive cuts like "Caterpillar" and "Duchess," both supplemented by some tastefully utilized electronics. Madsen's no slouch either when it comes to knowing his way around a melody, as his playing always exhibits restraint and good judgment, with the ability to find the emotional essence of each tune. The album's dream-like closer, "Wonderland," is a fine example as Madsen's delicate opening unveils the piece beautifully before the rest of the band joins him. But his more animated, Monkish gesticulations on "Mad Hatter" are even more memorable, with jaunty angularity and spirited energy.
As one would expect from a record celebrating Alice's bizarre encounters, there is a bit of weirdness here as well, although it's largely limited to a few isolated moments. "Queen of Hearts" begins with the musicians engaged in a semi-surreal exchange of guttural exclamations toying with the "Off with her head!" phrase, and an ominous-sounding synth part hovers throughout "Dodo." But, occasional bouts of disorientation aside, the album generally sticks solidly to a conventional post-bop language that leaves plenty of room for these fine musicians to do their thing. The result is well-played, imaginative jazz that embodies the sense of wonder and discovery at the heart of Carroll's magical tale.
Alice; Cheshire Cat; White Rabbit; Caterpillar; Queen of Hearts; Mad Hatter; Duchess; Gryphon; Mock Turtle; Dodo; March
Peter Madsen: piano; Herbert Walser: trumpet, horn and electronics; Herwig Hammerl: bass; Martin Grabher: drums and
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