It's a pretty sure bet that appraising any album whose title is also a palindrome isn't going to be a stroll in the park, even more so when the orchestra in question is the Jazz Composers Alliance (rule of thumb: the longer the name, the more abstruse the music) and the instrumentation includes voice, marimba, EWI, sopranino sax and five-string violin. Such is the nature of Rats Live on No Evil Star (try reading it backward), the most recent recording by composer / arranger / guitarist Darrell Katz and the JCA Orchestra.
For the benefit of those who may be perplexed by what they are hearing, it should be noted at the outset that Katz and his colleagues have a plan and know what they are about; it may simply be uncoupled from some listeners' normal frame of reference. In other words, this is jazz but not the kind one generally associates with such canonical big bands as, say, Basie, Herman or even Ellington. There is melody and harmony, coexisting with what many listeners unfamiliar with the framework might reasonably impugn as dissonance. And they wouldn't be far from the mark, even though it is cacophony with a purpose. No matter how anyone gauges the result of his endeavor, the fact remains that Katz is a topnotch musicianif not, he couldn't have taught for nearly three decades at Boston's well-respected Berklee School of Music. When composing the songs for Rats Live on No Evil Star, Katz wasn't simply pulling notes out of a hat. No, the notes, phrases and themes were well-chosen; let the responses to them fall as they may.
The title song, which opens the album, is one of two "concertos" for violin, marimba and jazz orchestra, and was commissioned in 1987 for George Schuller's big band. The marimba and violin share the introduction, joined by Rebecca Shrimpton's wordless voice, before the orchestra makes its appearance. By Katz's standards this is a rather conventional motif, although the nearly fourteen-minute running time far eclipses its welcome. The second "concerto of sorts" (Katz's words), How to Clean a Sewer, follows, once more featuring marimba, violin and voice in its three disparate movements ("Three or Four Kinds of Blues," "Windfall Lemons," "Attention"). The second movement is the musical restatement of a poem, "How to Clean a Sewer," by Katz's late wife, Paula Tatarunis, to whom the album is dedicated. "To an Angel," he writes, "is for those who care for and nurture us, even as their own lives are in disarray." The orchestra is amplified on that tune by the Strings Theory Trio.
Perhaps the most "orthodox" numbers on the album are the last two, "Red Dog Blues" and "Red Sea," the first of which features vocalist Alizon Lissance, the second co-author Shrimpton (with Lissance on piano). Although the lyrics to "Red Sea" defy plausible comment, any blues that includes the pronouncement "Donald Trump is a vicious punk with a big mouth full of lies and a soul full of junk," as "Red Dog Blues" does, should be music to many listeners' ears (albeit equally dissuasive to others). There's not much more than can or need be said, save to repeat that Katz and the JCA Orchestra clearly believe in what they are doing, and Rats Live on No Evil Star is well-planned and well-performed. Even though it's nowhere near our orbit, respectable marks for that.
Rats Live On No Evil Star; How To Clean a Sewer: Three Or Four Kinds Of Blues / Winndfall Lemons / Attention; To An Angel;
Prelude / Hiro Runs
The Devil Down; The Red Dog Blues; Red Sea.
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