Every year or so, just when I begin to think that the pop-jazz landscape is a barren wasteland, somebody releases a CD that knocks my socks off. Last year it was Jim Beard, this year it's The High Pockets.
The High Pockets are an eight-piece group that mixes disparate ingredients from around the world in an unusual musical gumbo. Cajun-style accordian and New Orleans-style brass stand at the center of this Orlando band's inspired sound, and while the union of Cajun influences with New Orleans jazz is more unusual than one might think, this outfit doesn't stop there. The Pockets also incorporate Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Latin, R&B and fusion. What's more, each player is a skilled improviser.
Pockets trumpeter and co-founder Paul Butcher wrote 10 of the 14 tunes on Picasso's Dog, the band's debut. Even with their complex polyrhythmic arrangements, these songs have a carefree vibrancy about them. The unusual blend of accordian and tuba with guitars, cuatro, trumpet, saxophones, flute, trombone, bass, African drums, conventional drums, and other percussion instruments works extremely well. Producer Richie Zellon deserves a lot of the credit, and he also lends his guitar or cuatro to six tracks. Other guests are New Orleans ace guitarist Steve Masakowski, tuba man John Allred, and various percussionists.
The band that comes closest to The High Pockets' ecelectic sound is Australia's The catholics, but The High Pockets are even more worldly in their influences. For instance, "Ol' Puddin' Jar" is a reggae tune that features tuba and accordian, two instruments seldom heard in a reggae band. "Artzydeco" is an exotic call-and-response number that blends bop, funk and zydeco. "Sunscreen" has a bright Caribbean beat, while the title track is a surrealistic waltz. My favorite cut is "Why," a rhythmic piece driven by riffing accordian, contrapunctual guitar and soaring trumpet. On "Mardi Gras Stomp," the band borrows some tricks from New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Covers of the Stones' "Satisfaction" and Jimi Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic" are eccentric but extremely clever.
Picasso's Dog is intelligent, uplifting and very original. This one will make my best-of-'98 list.