The Best of 2008, Part 4: Whack Jazz

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This is Part Four overall, but the last part of the “Best of Jazz” trilogy. While the last section focused on fusion, here’s where we’re gettin’ wiggy with it because this section is devoted to whack jazz.

Looking back, I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t cover that many new releases from the whack jazz realm; I covered just as much coming from prior years as from 2008 over the course of the year. That doesn’t mean that this was a lean year for jugular jazz, though, as there’s been plenty out there for those who look hard enough. Rather, it’s been more of a time constraint; I haven’t even gotten to Erik Friedlander’s Broken Arm Trio yet, which I’ve heard is great. I do plan to review that in the near future and I wouldn’t be surprised if I made that an after-the-fact addition to the list.

Moreover, if I didn’t know better, ESP-Disk is trying to corner the whack jazz market with a slew of reissues and a handful of notable new recordings. Two of those all-new releases are noted here, and one of those is the best whack jazz record I’ve heard released this year:

Best CD Of The Batch: Totem> – Solar Forge
Photo by Yukio Fukushima

This is jazz that’s so far out, it’s far out of the realm of what can even be considered jazz. Guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil and his Totem> compadres Andrew Drury (drums) and Tom Blancarte (upright bass) see formalities in music such as melody and time-keeping as unnecessary obstructions when getting to the core sounds. After all, all music is really just a collection of sounds; Totem> makes these collection of sounds without using any conventions. Not a single chord change or a riff exists, what we have instead are a bunch of timbres and floating moods that shift randomly and sometimes abruptly. It’s almost as if each song is being composed by some force of nature, not by human beings.

That’s exactly what makes Solar Forge so appealing; this improvised music is being driven by some spiritual, untamed force, not by music theory or by what someone did before. In a genre that’s full of original artists almost by definition, Totem> is even more so.

Best Song Of The Batch: Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra – “We Are MTO”

While the rest of the album We Are MTO adheres most closely to the tempos of the territory bands of the 20’s and 30’s, the title cut employs an intimidating bass/drums rock beat. The guitar’s fuzzy, shimmering tone comes straight from CCR’s “Born In The Bayou.” The horns mete out a chart that goes further back, though, as in Prohibition. And yet, this wonderfully weird mashup actually works.

“Don Redman meets Funkadelic at Count Basie’s summer home by the lake,” says the liner notes. “Fletcher Henderson meets John Fogerty at Tony Joe White’s shack by the marsh,” says me. Either way, “We Are MTO” is oozing cool, the kind of cool that spans decades.

Best Of The Rest:

BarnacledCharles: “Zany” doesn’t even begin to describe this band.

Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory OrchestraWe Are MTO: If you’ve wondered what pre-swing jazz might have sounded like in George Clinton’s hands, wonder no more.

Michael BatesClockwise
: These tracks “aren’t really songs, but musical conversations” is what I said in the review. Yeppers.

Jane Ira BloomMental Weather: It’s almost too tuneful to be called whack jazz, but Bloom keeps it plenty interesting and unpredictable enough.

Next: Blues and Louisiana Music…

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