When you have three American musicians — two from Greenville, SC — interpreting Russian folk music, you might expect it to get a little wild and full of pastiche. This new band and their new, self-titled debut album, play up the Soviet-ness of their act…from the name to the red CD jacket to the pseudo-Cyrillic spelling of the song title names. The music itself is sometimes playful with the whole Russian theme, but filtered through the boundless energy of outside jazz, it becomes clear that, ultimately, the band does mean business.
Karl 2000 is a trio of a very American jazz setup: Daniel Rovin plays saxophones and a jonaphone (a jona-what?); Austin White handles the standup bass and cello; Dave Miller mans the drums. The album’s program mixes originals with a pop standard, a jazz standard and some adaptations of old Russian folk tunes. The latter category goes first with the brief “Meadowlands,” which really does come off as pastiche, but quickly transitions into the no-bullshit avant-garde jazz of “(All Of Them),” introducing Rovin as a powerful sax player with a meaty tone and a delivery that can get urgent and shrill as this song progresses into all-out thrash.
“A Cliff On The Volga” is another Russian tune that is their most successful reconciliation of the styles of music originating from either side of the Iron Curtain, played with the drama of a Slavic performance (the dubbed in saxes enhances that effect) but the freedom of American out-jazz. “Blumenlied” has even more ups and downs in the intensity, and just when it appears the band is about to go off the deep end, they pull back but never are too far from the cliff .White’s spidery bass solo is a highlight. White’s acoustic bass also serves as the anchor on “Derrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr” — no, my “r” key didn’t get stuck — holding down a barely tonal melody as Miller’s time signature goes all over the place. The bassist also dominates the tonal space on “A Birch Tree In A Field Did Stand,” enabling Rovin to worship in the temple of Ayler with some abrasive and aching sax ruminations.
Some songs are even more fun and uninhibited. “Chocolate Wonderfall,” which appears to be recorded live, is a thunderous rock commotion, punk jazz at its best. Rovin’s delirious sax is sometimes off the hook. The 1939 Vera Lynn hit “We’ll Meet Again” is covered with a thick slab of vibrato in Rovin’s sax, and the whole band sounds tinny, like an old 78 record. It could be mistaken for a recording that’s about ten years older than Lynn’s original version. But the most unhinged cover (and the most enjoyable) is Karl’s merry deconstruction of The Partridge Family’s #1 pop hit “I Think I Love You.” What’s interesting is that intentionally or not, the trio manages to make a connection of the melody to Russian folk music, mainly by fracturing it and dicing it up, but it remains recognizable, if barely. White pretty much ignores the song completely, constructing his own ideas that are nonetheless responsive to Rovin.
A little zany, perhaps, but Karl 2000 is a creatively refreshing take on improvised music. Karl 2000 released on December 4. Visit Karl 2000′s website for more info.