Many compact discs are like visits to a new restaurant with a tasting menu. The listener has course after course brought to them, and with luck, every dish is not only delightful in itself but part of a larger experience. And one makes a mental note to go back and bring friends. Sometimes, of course, one beckons to the waitperson and says, “Please, can we skip ahead? I’m not happy with this. If you’d just bring me the flourless chocolate cake and the check, that would be great.” And the CD goes into that purgatory between give-to-a-friend-or-the-thrift-store-or keep-for-the-moment-but-not-forever.
The new CD, COUNTERMELODY (Dot Time Records), by Evan Arntzen and esteemed friends, isn’t a meal: it’s a brightly-colored, many-sided journey. Details here and here if the names above have already convinced you.
Before you read a word more, two samples which will reveal much and reward more:
SOLITARITY, by Evan:
and MUSKRAT RAMBLE, sung by Catherine Russell:
Although the terms “old” and “new” are dangerously weighted and too binary, COUNTERMELODY is a shining showcase for “old” music (nearly a hundred years old) played as “new,” and “new” music that passionately embraces “old” traditions. SOLITARITY is delightfully weird — that’s a compliment — but it also sounds so much like a New Orleans funeral, mournful and exultant at once. And to borrow from Billy Wilder, each of the musicians here has a face, a vivid, glowing singularity — a set of big voices, and I don’t simply mean Catherine Russell’s combination of trumpet and cello and full orchestra. Speaking of singers, Evan’s vocal rendition of GEORGIA CABIN is perfectly dreamy. I don’t want him to put down his horns, but he could do a lovely vocal album.
But back to the journey I was describing. The CD begins with a half-dozen “traditional” songs — MUSKRAT RAMBLE, 18th STREET STRUT, CAMP MEETING BLUES, GEORGIA CABIN, PUT ‘EM DOWN BLUES, and WHEN ERASTUS PLAYS HIS OLD KAZOO. Connoisseurs will check off the homages to Ory, Moten, Oliver, Bechet, Louis, and Dodds. But these are not formulaic choices. They come from a deep immersion in the repertoire and a desire to do the music homage in its full glory, not in the eleven tunes that everyone plays. The performances are totally energized but also respectful of the original outlines of the songs and of performance practice. The ensembles are strong (having two trumpets who can kitten-tussle in mid-air is a great thing) and the solos fierce or fiercely tender.
Then, SMILES, usually played and sung with a certain amount of sentimentality, whether it’s by Charles La Vere or Chick Bullock: the musical equivalent of a 1925 Valentine’s postcard, cherubs and hearts crowding in. But not here:
That’s two minutes and thirty-four seconds of exuberance. My initial reaction was “WHAT?!” But I was properly smiling as Evan and Charlie chased each other around the backyard, twin five-year olds who have eaten too much Halloween candy. Honoring the innovators implies a certain amount of possibly-disrespectful but loving innovation: the result is immensely restorative. While my nerve endings were still tingling, I had the rare pleasure of hearing Catherine Russell sing IF YOU WERE MINE as no one, including Billie, ever sang it, complete with the verse, which I’d never heard. A properly churchy DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE follows, then originals by Halloran, Kellso, Benny Green, and Evan . . . and the disc concludes with two brief cylinder recordings of AFTER YOU’VE GONE and MUSKRAT RAMBLE, created by the band and the master of hot archaisms, Colin Hancock.
After that, I wanted a glass of ice water, and, after a pause, to play COUNTERMELODY again, and tell my friends, as I am doing here.
So don’t be the last one on your block to walk around humming and grinning because of COUNTERMELODY. You can receive it in its lovely package (fine notes by producer Scout Opatut) or digitally, here or here.
Postscript: someone said of me, with an edge, “Michael only writes good reviews,” to which I responded, when I heard, “I only review good music.” COUNTERMELODY is over the moon and beyond the beyonds in that way.
May your happiness increase!