In reviewing an album such as El Payaso, it is perhaps best to separate the performance from the music. The performance is quite good; as these dozen gentlemen are first-class musicians from the Big Apple, one would expect no less. As for the music, it is on the whole bright and enterprising, reminiscent of themes by Anthony Braxton, Carla Bley, Henry Threadgill, George Gruntz, David Murray, Pierre Dorgé, Vinny Golia (for whose label it was recorded) and other cutting-edge composers. If it doesn't yank my chain, that's a matter of personal taste and certainly no criticism of Joey Sellers, who wrote and arranged everything save the relatively brief and impromptu piece for piano, percussion and winds, "Blame Baker, for which the entire group is given credit.
Four of the seven selections aren't nearly as concise. Each of them runs over twelve minutes; "Odd Children is the longest at 16:26. This epic piece is also one of the more eccentric essays, encompassing several changes in mood and tempo, none of which swings. True, there's a lot going on behind the resolute solos by bassist John Hebert, alto John O'Gallagher, trombonist Joe Fiedler, trumpeter Dave Ballou and tenor Tony Malaby, but it sounds for the most part like an improvised warmup session (which could be as it was intended). Clearly, Sellers has a blueprint in mind; my ears simply aren't attuned to it.
"Carly B. is something else again, an easygoing swinger whose charming passages for brass and reeds are amplified by Sellers' lucid trombone and Dave Berkman's limber piano. To me, that's the album's unequivocal highlight, even though there are a number of invigorating moments on the ballad "Rain as Grace, wherein Berkman's expressive piano and Malaby's eloquent soprano underscore the pensive mood. The busy finale, "Val, is an earnest but choppy showcase for Sellers, Berkman and Malaby, this time on tenor, who show that they can indeed swing when given room and reason to do so.
Even though this won't be everyone's cup of tea, one has to applaud Sellers for staying with his game plan and making it work. I've no doubt that there's an audience for his distinctive themes, but only open minds need apply.
El Payaso; Corrugated Beak; Rain as Grace; Odd Children; Carly B.; Blame Baker; Val (71:32).
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