Okay, the name may be rather out of the ordinary (Cowboys & Frenchmen?), but once past that, what remains is a burnished New York City-based quintet whose music might best be described as decidedly liberated and contemporary. This isn't "free" jazz wherein each member of the group goes his own separate way; there is, however, a large share of free-lancing within the established boundaries of melody, harmony and rhythm that moderate all save the most ungoverned forms of the music.
The album's half-dozen numbers are nominally thematic, designed to evoke the images of a cross-country tour, from "the hectic pace of big cities" to "the majestic tranquility of nature" and "unexpected surprises and tiresome aggravations" that may arise when moving from nightclub to nightclub. As those images rest largely in the imagination of listeners, their impact may range from indispensable to irrelevant; in either case, hardly worth debating. Improvisation, when it does occur, serves to reinforce the interlocking framework, which remains essentially prominent throughout. Co-leader Ethan Helm
, who doubles on alto sax and flute, composed the six numbers, which range from boisterous to even-tempered.
The opener, "American Whispers: Pines," lands squarely in the former camp, its serene dual-sax intro leading to a wild and sonorous pastiche intertwined by a pair of crisp solos from pianist Addison Frei
and another by bassist Ethan O'Reilly
. "Alice in Promisedland" showcases the quintet's mellower side, with Owen Broder
's alto sax taking the melodic lead and Helm providing counterpoint on flute. "American Whispers: Streams" starts in a similar vein before the tempo shifts to high gear to make way for Frei before slowing again behind an engaging statement from O'Reilly and splendid brush work by drummer Matt Honor
. Trim two-part harmony by Helm and Broder leads the way to "Where Is Your Wealth?," a mid-tempo hymnal underscored again by finely-tuned saxophones and piano.
"Gig Life" turns up the heat but not without due attention to its melodic foundation, embracing perceptive solos by Frei, Helm and Broder, who lends added weight on baritone saxwhich is where he stays on "The Farmer's Reason," introducing the even-tempered finale on his own before the group enters to effect a smooth and likeable outcome. Even though Our Highway
may not encompass a pleasant journey for every listener, these Cowboys & Frenchmen are first-rate musicians who believe in what they are doing. The final score is fair: anything higher might be misleading, whereas a lower grade could be construed as narrow-minded or even biased on the part of the reviewer. Three and one-half stars equates to "very good," which is what Our Highway
American Whispers: Pines; Alice in Promisedland; American Whispers: Streams—An Old
Church; Where Is Your Wealth?; Gig Life—American Whispers: Mountains; The Farmer’s