It used to be that when we used the term “punk jazz,” we were referring to Jaco Pastorius. Let’s face it, the man was a jazz bass revolutionary. But over the years — and concurrent with with Jaco’s career — the idea of what jazz can be was expanded by the likes of John Zorn’s downtown New York cohorts and the mind-bending work of Chicago’s. This probably displeased the traditionalists, clinging to the notion that swing is the only thing, but it opened the door for all manner of jazz vs. “other music” collisions.
For Seabrook Power Plant, “collision” just might be the perfect word. they take bits of folk, jazz, and rock, smooshing them all together. Hopefully, nobody got hurt in the process. Now, you might not think that a trio of tenor banjo (and sometimes electric guitar), bass, and drums couldn’t cause all that much trouble, but these guys have an agenda. Put another way, this is not Bela Fleck. And while my ear parts loves some Bela Fleck, you know what I’m getting at here.
On the more rock side of things, there is “Black Sheep Squadron,” on which Brandon Seabrook switches to electric guitar and absolutely shreds, mixing traditional metal ripping with more “out” angularity. And let me tell you, when this guys get locked in unison, they are monsters! Still in the rock vein is “0515,” a sonic tribute (of sorts) to Van Halen. Despite the title pointing at the Van Hagar era, I hear a little “Fair Warning” in there as well.
Things get very interesting on “I’m Too Good For You,” which is full of rock bravado but with the banjo dropping in the heavy chords. It’s quite an experience to hear the tenor banjo leaning into it in such a context. With not nearly as much weight as the guitar, the gaps are filled in with extra aggression and agility. About a third of the way into the song, the banjo drops back as the bass and drums set up a spooky early King Crimson dirge. Ethereal bowed banjo (sounding very violin-like) comes in, at first adding to the atmosphere but then going on to amp up the tension level.
“Sacchetto Mal D’Aria” delivers a more Eastern sound with long phrases played over a background drone. Mid-song, the banjo kicks into hyperdrive, spitting out whole chunks of lines at a fierce pace. Great stuff.
The two most striking tracks here are “Forcep Perfection” and “Lamborghini Helicopter.” The former is solo banjo that’s puts Seabrook’s big ears and banjo skills on display — a different tuning is employed that enhances the quick pace and percussive nature of the lines.
“Lamborghini Helicopter” is one of the most intriguing pieces of music I’ve heard so far this year. With Seabrook chaining together crazy, high-speed arpeggios, angular fragments, and insistent ostinatos (think Philip Glass or Steve Reich on benzedrine), the composition begins as an exercise in tension-building. But then, just as some banjo notes echo off into the distance…the voice of Judith Berkson arrives. Her wordless vocals enter into a call & response conversation with bassist Tom Blancarte that morphs the song into…well…something else. Berkson is given some solo space that brings to mind Einstein-era Glass as well as artists such as Meredith Monk and the Roches. The banjo then steps in for one last blast of near-chaotic fury, with brother Jared Seabrook’s drums pushing things to new heights.
Is this jazz? Rock? Avant Garde? Punk jazz? I don’t really know. It ain’t Bela Fleck, that’s for sure.
Seabrook Powerplant II is available at the band’s website.
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