Sunday, March 3, 2013

March Lions and Lambs (Part 1)

Drummer/composer Ches Smith can be heard in many different settings as a sideman, adding his "guerrilla percussion" to ensembles led by Tim Berne, Marc Ribot and Mary Halvorson.  As a leader, he's involved in a number of projects.  His band, These Arches, has just issued its 2nd CD, "Hammered" (Clean Feed Records) - composed of Smith, Andrea Parkins (accordion, electronics), Ms. Halvorson (electric guitar) plus the saxophones of Tony Malaby (tenor) and Tim Berne (alto), the quintet creates music that is adventurous, built on collective improvisation, and filled with many twists and turns.  The forward motion is relentless on the opening 2 tracks, "Frisner" and "Wilson Phillip".  The former opens with what sounds like the band "stretching" until they drop into a rollicking groove.  Malaby and Berne spar over the hard-edged drums while Ms. Parkins electronics grumble and Ms. Halvorson's guitar ripples, growls and scratches.  The second track might be dedicated to the original drummer of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Phillip Wilson - Malaby holds down the bottom along with the guitarist while Berne spills out the melody.  There's a frantic musical conversation of guitar, alto and drums before a return to the theme and then the tenor saxophonist gets the spotlight to wail, screech and roil over the rest of the band.

What's so much fun about this music is its crazy blend of melody and chaos. The title track lives up to its name with Smith's steamroller drums driving the quintet through a piece that blends the sounds of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band with Ornette Coleman's Prime Time. The short ballad track, "Limitations", is a rubato piece filled with melodic fragments, loud and soft noises, the drummer on what could be a glockenspiel. The playful "This Might Be a Fade Out" starts as frenetic noise before dropping into a rocking groove and catchy melody for a short time, then a drum solo, then noise, back and forth through numerous changes and moods.

Ches Smith & These Arches will surprise you with inventiveness, catch you off-guard with spontaneous changes of direction, and please you because these musicians hold no allegiances except to each other (no commercial sell-outs they!) So, get (purchase) "Hammered" for a real good new-fashioned romp.  For more information, go to CT readers, be aware that Ches Smith brings this band to New Haven on June 14, 2013, as the final show in the Firehouse 12 Spring 2013 Concerts series - go to for ticket information.

As I write this review, pianist Dick Hyman is several days away from his 86th birthday (born March 8, 1927). With a career that has now entered its 7th decade, Mr. Hyman has composed film scores and orchestral compositions, toured as a solo artist and recorded well over 100 albums. Vocalist Heather Masse, born in Maine and trained at the New England Conservatory of Music, first came to public acclaim as a member of The Wailin' Jennys, a fine acoustic folk trio.  Her 2009 Red House Records debut, "Bird Song", showed that the young lady also had some fine jazz "chops."

"Lock My Heart" (Red House Records) is the result of Ms. Masse and Mr. Hyman being paired by Garrison Keillor for his "Prairie Home Companion" weekly radio show. This "match made in Lake Woebegon" is an absolute treat as the blend of voice and piano with songs that range from Broadway to rhythm 'n' blues to jazz standards to a pair of fine originals by Ms. Masse.  Among the highlights is the bluesy take on Buddy Johnson's "Since I Fell For You".  While the vocal is emotionally rich, the pianist moves from simple yet sweet accompaniment to a verse with "doo-wop" inspired triplets. That seems to kick the temperature several degrees and Ms. Masse really digs into the vocal. There is a smart pairing of 2 pieces by the team of Maxwell Anderson (lyrics) and Kurt Weill (music).  "September Song" has a lovely vocal that Mr. Hyman supports ever-so-melodically (and dramatically) before taking a short solo.  The second track, "Lost In The Stars", has more dramatic piano and an understated yet handsome vocal.

Of the 2 originals, "If I Called You" is a most lovely ballad.  In the beginning, the sparse piano work is the perfect accompaniment for the emotion in the vocal. There's a touch of "country music" in the vocal and the shimmering piano lines.  The blues creeps right into "Morning Drinker" but it's a playful piece about the intoxication that sleep and love-making can bring.

Mr. Hyman's blues-drenched piano riffs leads into a sweet reading of "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" (composed by Duke Ellington with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) and this blues, also about love, allows the pianist to shine as he caresses the vocal lines.   The duo turns to Billy Strayhorn for his "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing", a Debussy-inspired piece written for the Ellington Orchestra.  Ms. Masse embraces the lyrics, her voice gentle with an intimate huskiness that comes out now and again.

The program closes with a rollicking run-through of "I'm Gonna Lock My Heart (And Throw Away the Key)", a piece that Jimmy Eaton and Terry Shand composed and that Billie Holiday had a hit with. Ms. Masse "gooses" up her voice, in a "Betty Boop" fashion while Mr. Hyman strides delightfully through the choruses.  It's a fanciful and fun finish to a classy recording.

Heather Masse and Dick Hyman sound as if they've been partners for decades (Ms. Masse first encountered the pianist through his book "Dick Hyman's Professional Chord Changes and Substitutions for 100 Tunes Every Musician Should Know").  "Lock My Heart" is wonderful music to wake up to and to help ease the strain of a busy day - you really ought to let this fine collection into your life. For more information, go to

No comments:

Post a Comment