There have been several jazz projects that looked back at the popular music of the 1960's, but none have been as all-encompassing as what drummer Phil Haynes
and his band Free Country do here. They touch on Baby Boomer favorites like Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and James Brown, but their sweep of the Sixties is wide enough to also bring in Leonard Bernstein and John Coltrane
This quartet of guitar, cello, bass and drums is extremely flexible in the way it attacks these old songs. Cellist Hank Roberts
often takes the lead in both his playing and singing. Roberts is a versatile, melodic player who can nimbly pluck his way through Hendrix's "Little Wing" and bow jauntily on Burt Bachrach's "Do You Know The Way To San Jose," but he really impresses with his singing. He shows a range from deep baritone to buttery tenor and can be earnest or campy as the song dictates. He comes off as a tongue-in-cheek soul man on James Brown's "Sex Machine" but croons like a convincing low-voiced soul singer on "Walk On By." His range of high and low voices on tracks like "What's Going On" make him sound like a one-man Temptations. Beside him Jim Yanda
often plays treble-y rhythm guitar, but also has lovely, intricately picked features on "Mother's Nature Son," "Surfer Girl" and "Get Together" (incorrectly called "Come Together" on the CD case). He also gets the space to strike off into his own bag of fat-toned psychedelic licks when called for, often sounding like a young Larry Coryell
, especially when he cranks it up on "Hey Jude." Gress and Haynes, for their part, support with whatever is needed, whether it is rumbling rock bashing or supple soul and jazz grooves.
Several of the songs stay pretty close to their original versions. Others go above and beyond. "California Dreaming" is slowed down into a woozy mass of slide guitar and plucked cello that sounds like the back end of a bad acid trip, while the "Star Trek" theme gets a bouncy jazz treatment with an easy-flowing solo by Yanda. Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" and the schmaltzy "What A Wonderful World" undergo stunning, ethereal transformations. "Both Sides Now" has the feel of an epic Indian raga as its tempo slowly increases and Yanda's guitar slowly warps around arco and pizzicato cello. "Wonderful World" is turned into a collage of glowing guitar notes that pick out the melody as Roberts recites lyrics that evolve into stream-of-consciousness poetry over Gress' and Haynes' colorations.
The heaviest work, as you might expect, comes on the Coltrane section. That starts with prayer, chanting and poetry before leaping into the "Resolution" section of "A Love Supreme" with Roberts and Yanda both wailing over Gress' and Haynes' bouncing groove. That is followed by a "My Favorite Things," where Gress carefully lays out the melody before the music gradually speeds up and the cello and guitar dive into fast-paced, free-wheeling jamming over hustling bass and drums.
This quartet affectionately tackles the music of sixties with a sense of fun, wonder and possibility, giving some songs cute makeovers and treating others to inspired and adventurous interpretations. The romping inventiveness on this excellent set makes this far more than an exercise in nostalgia.
Hank Roberts: cello, vocals; Jim Yanda: guitar; Drew Gress: bass; Phil Haynes: drums.