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Ro Sham Beaux: Ro Sham Beaux

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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The four New England Conservatory students who make up Ro Sham Beaux would have you believe that their sound is some kind of convoluted indie-rock/jazz hybrid. That pretense is present in the rock 'n' roll production values of the record and in the album artwork; it's even there in the press release.

That's all well and good, but only serves to confuse the issue. This quartet is a cookin' little jazz combo, hard working and fun, with every indication that it could—collectively or individually—go from good to great.

To be fair, this is a pretty loud record. Jacob Cole's drums rarely dip below the benchmarks for power, volume and force established by Led Zeppelin's John Bonham—but then, neither did the young Jack DeJohnette, and he's a certified jazz drummer. And it's true that, like a rock 'n' roll band, Ro Sham Beaux lays on a lot of distortion of Zac Shaiman's saxophone and Luke Marantz's keyboards. But there again, Ro Sham Beaux is following in the path of jazz groups like Miles Davis' early '70s ensembles.

Call it what you will—it doesn't really matter. What matters is the degree to which the elements on this self-titled debut coalesce into a surprisingly coherent achievement. Many of the numbers (group-composed, all of them, except for Björk's "Jóga") are tuneful songs, first and foremost. The combination of forceful sax and electric keyboard, together with Oliver Watkinson's acoustic bass, in the service of such soulful material, will recall trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's Straight Life (CTI, 1970) group with pianist Herbie Hancock and guitarist George Benson plugged in, and bassist Ron Carter acoustic. (More contemporary reference points are the Chris Potter Underground and Jeremy Udden's Plainville group.)

Unlike the deep groove of Straight Life, however, the funk of the songs on Ro Sham Beaux is tightly-wound, nervous, with sudden shifts in time signatures. On many tracks ("Slave To The Cube," "Town"), this busy organization of sound does not sacrifice memorable melodies or the communication of emotion.

On other numbers, Cole's churning drums and the sustain of the electric keyboards sometimes create a kind of thicket of sound in which the regular pulse is lost. When this is combined with soaring melodic figures played on the saxophone ("Soul Crusher," the two pieces that appear to be joined in "Anthem" and the opening half of "High Society"), the effect is perhaps less successful, but nevertheless a worthwhile experiment.

Like Weather Report—whose credo was "nobody solos, everybody solos"—Ro Sham Beaux is strong on expressive group passages and sparing with long individual solos. But (again, like Weather Report), each instrumental voice emerges quite distinctly. OK, so maybe it is a rockin' hybrid. A promising rockin' hybrid.

Track Listing: Bearblade; Slave to the Cube; keut str8 boiz; Town; Soul Crusher; Tejas Drive; Meatballs are the Way to a Woman's Heart; Joga; Dreamulator; High Society; Anthem.

Personnel: Zac Shaiman: saxophones and effects; Luke Marantz: keyboards; Oliver Watkinson: bass; Jacob Cole: drums and glockenspiel.

Title: Ro Sham Beaux | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: Red Piano Records

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