Four years have passed since the last release by Chris Speed's Yeah NO quartet, Emit (Songlines, 2000). Speed has been busy in those years as a key player in the ensembles of Uri Caine, Dave Douglas, Myra Melford, Matt Moran and John Hollenbeck. He toured and played with three collaborative bands with overlapping personnelthe Balkan-tinged quartet Pachora, with his own Yeah NO players, electric bassist Skuli Sverrisson, drummer Jim Black, and guitarist Brad Shepik; Jim Black's AlasNoAxis, with Sverrisson and Icelandic guitarist Hilmar Jensson; and, of course, Yeah NO, with trumpet player Cuong Vu. He also managed to lead another band, Trio Iffy, with keys player Jamie Saft and drummer Ben Perowsky.
But the waiting paid off. Swell Henry, released by another small indie, Squealer Music, is a much more assured and mature version of the Yeah NO quartet. The band's sound is much more cohesive, and surprisingly, more melodic. This time, Yeah NO is augmented by Tin Hat Trio's accordionist Rob Burger, Saft on mellotron and wurlitzer (and the man in charge of recording and mixing the disc), and Jensson on guitar. There are the same elements that signified Yeah NO's past releasesBlack's fractured, polyrhythmic timekeeping, Sverrisson's supple bass chords, Vu's wide array of textures from smooth, almost Cliford Brown-ish playing to eruptive slurring, and Speed's beautiful, warm tone on the clarinet and the tenor saxand of course the untimely Balkan references, but this time the quartet delivers more.
Swell Henry offers ten short tracks, totaling less than forty minutes. Burger's presence on five tracks brings a sonic palette quite similar to Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet (and indeed, Claudia Quintet accordionist Ted Reichman toured with Yeah NO earlier this year). Burger is offering more room for Speed and Vu to improvise while he is outlining the melody, as in the catchy slow opening track, "She Has Four Thorns." Two tracks"Born In The Air" and "Camper Giorno"allude to Balkan influences and featuring the close chemistry between Black and Sverrisson. Only the short "Flanked" brings the same reckless raw energy that was part of Yeah NO aesthetic on its last three releases.
"He Has A Pair Of Dice," one of the two tracks where only the quartet plays, sounds like one of the chaotic songs out of John Zorn's Masada songbook. The most beautiful track, "Staircase Genius," is based on a short riff by Jensson's guitar, that is recaptured again and again by Speed and Vu till the anticipated eruptive climax and than it quickly dissolves. The disc ends with the mysterious ambient KIp Files.
Karlsson Wilker (the designer of the beautiful cover of Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet I, Claudia ) designed a futuristic attractive cover for Swell Henry. Too bad that you need telescopic vision to discern that this a Speed release, but maybe that was Speed had in mind.
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