You could say that the Max Nagl Ensemble puts an exciting contemporary spin on classic-sounding material. Or you could say the group takes contemporary material and gives it a universally accessible classic sound. Either way, you'd be right. This is an extremely flexible and versatile outfit that's hard to pin down, and so fun-loving and spontaneous that you stand little chance of ever being able to do so.
Named for the area of Vienna in which the group performs, Quartier du Faisan is an extended demonstrationin the same way a magic act is a demonstrationof how the players navigate and conflate these two worlds divided by an ever-shifting temporal line. The disc squeals out of the starting gate with "Beduinenwalzer," which takes the waltz (in the loosest sense of the term) and makes it simultaneously more exotic, more raucous, and more glitzy. Moments of start-stop, wailing reeds give way to velvety big band swing, with each transition sounding as if one is passing through a bejeweled curtain. Many of these songs evoke visual imageslistening to "Beduinenwalzer," I pictured a band of foreigners traversing the desert, parched and exhausted. Suddenly they come upon a grand white tent. Parting the flaps, they reveal some magical musical oasis, twice as lavish on the inside as it appears from without, and a white-suited band is swinging away for a Jazz Age crowd.
Like "Beduinenwalzer," "Bat Chain" has moments that are exaggerated for comic, absurdly lascivious effect. My mental image here is a Jamaican fusion/funk band with legendary Afros trying to give a rhythmic jump-start to the clientele at a burlesque house. But even for a live track, it runs on far too long and goes a bit limp and aimless, despite some sit-up-and-take-notice solos.
The Ensemble works well at any pace, though, not just when romping and stomping. "Dunkelziffer" opens with thirty seconds of an electronic mosquito buzz before introducing a tender arrangement. However, the buzz continues for another full minute before reappearing as harpsichord-like accompaniment, illustrating one of the group's drawbacks: its thirst for modest experimentation can introduce elements that some will regard as refreshingly challenging (the "contemporary" set) and others will consider irritating (the classicists). "Patient," for instance, stays noisy and abstract longer than it needs to, yet this might establish avant creds in the circles where such things matter.
Imagine Nagl asking himself a question like this: what would Benny Goodman's band sound like if it was playing a gig at a Mexican wedding? Then he and his group set about distilling the hallmarks of the sounds they aim to mix. But while the final composition comes awfully close to caricature, there is too much genuine love for these various musical styles to seem sneeringly postmodern. In a sense, the music on Quartier du Faisan shares quite a bit with the best cartoons. It's a clever, often original and lighthearted depiction of an unlikely scenario that delights in all the possibilities of its medium, and above all, always maintains a broad appeal.
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