Listening to Darrell Katz's music, it boggles the mind that he is not celebrated as one of the best jazz composers-arrangers around. He has been creating ambitious and accessible works full of humor, social conscience and creativity for decades in the Boston area with the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra and other groups, yet you rarely hear his name. His latest, Rats Live on No Evil Star, is typical of his work, big band jazz with heavy infusions of rock, blues and classical ideas, all shaped into gorgeous and unique music.
Much of the album's running time is taken up with two long pieces, the title track and the suite "How to Clean a Sewer." Both heavily feature two long-time members of the orchestra, Helen Sherrah-Davies on violin and Vessela Stoyanova on marimba. On "Rats Live," they join vocalist Rebecca Shrimpton in creating a lively dancing mood set to a chugging rock beat by the orchestra. The pair take turns soloing wildly joined by Phil Scarff with a delirious tenor sax solo before the musical mood becomes more ominous with a restless noirish feel, both bright and sinister like a spy movie soundtrack written by Henry Mancini.
"Sewer" is a multi-faceted suite. Its first part, "Three or Four Kinds of Blues," begins with Sherrah-Davies and Stoyanova leading a brooding band progression with quirky stop- start interludes and horn shouts that eventually becomes a lurching two-beat stomp in the manner of Julius Hemphill's "The Hard Blues." On "Windfall Lemons" Shrimpton coolly sings lyrics by Katz's late wife, poet Paula Tartarus, over a violin and flute-led ensemble that moves along at constantly shifting tempos. Finally "Attention" is a smorgasbord of twisting melodies, rock energy, sassy brass shouts, and trombone duets all tied together by Shrimpton stretching and bending the words of a quote by Simone Weil: "Attention is the rarest and purest form of genorosity."
The other tracks are shorter but not throwaways. "To an Angel" is a blues-flavored art song balancing stomping big band funk with a strutting string trio that features a powerful vocal performance by Shrimpton along with heady solos by Hiroaki Honshuku on flute, Scarff on soprano and Rick Stone (Guitar) on alto. The "Prelude" is a short, shrieking duet for Honshuku on EWI synthesizer and Sherrah-Davies on violin and "Red Sea" is a touching, melancholy folk song-like feature for Shrimpton accompanied by Katz himself on guitar and Alizon Lissance on piano.
Then there's "The Red Dog Blues," a flashy big band blues written by Katz in 2015 where Lissance throws humorous digs at some of the leading demagogues of that time like the virulently anti-gay Reverend Fred Phelps, the then-governor of Texas, Rick Perry and some guy named Donald Trump who the lyrics describe as "a vicious punk / with a big mouth full of lies / and a soul full of junk." Wonder what happened to him?
This CD not only demonstrates the quality of Katz's writing but the ability of the JCA Orchestra's members to bring his music to life. It also shows off some individual talents who should be much better known like Helen Sherrah-Davies with her forceful violin playing, Phil Scarff with his blazing sax solos and Rebecca Shrimpton with a stylistic vocal range that touches on everyone from Maria Muldaur to Norma Winstone. Darrell Katz deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as large jazz ensemble leaders like Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue, Carla Bley and Mike Westbrook. His music is that distinctive and that good.
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.
Darrell Katz: composer, conductor, arranger, guitar (8); Helen Sherrah-Davies, Mimi Rabson: 5-string violin (5); Vessela
Stoyanova: marimba, vibraphone; Rebecca Shrimpton: voice; Hiro Honshoku: flute, piccolo, EWI; Rick Stone: alto sax, clarinet;
Ken Field: alto sax; Phil Scarff: tenor sax, soprano sax, sopranino sax, clarinet; Melanie Howell-Brooks: baritone sax, bass
clarinet; Jeff Classen, Paul Meneghini, Water Platt: trumpet; Jim Mosher: French horn; Bob Pilkington, David Harris, trombone;
Bill Lowe: tuba, bass trombone; Mike Conner: drums; John Funkhauser: bass; Norm Zocher: guitar; Ricardo Monzon:
percussion; Hey Rim Jeon: piano; Alizon Lissance: voice (7), piano (8); Ralph Rosen: blues harp (7); Juno Fujiwara: cello (5).