No, the aliens haven’t landed. And this isn’t a detour into NASA’s territory or a nostalgic trip back to the Mickey Mouse Club (although I haven’t been able to get one ancient “The Martians come to New York” joke out of my head*).
MESSAGE FROM MARS is the name of a splendid new disc by Echoes of Swing, a world-class band that lives up to its name and more. While retaining its essential identity — flexible and convincing — this quartet can sound like a much larger unit, and the disc is characterized by a delightful variety in mood, tempo, and approach. The players are superb chameleons who remain true to themselves: Chris Hopkins (himself a superb pianist) on alto sax; Colin T. Dawson on trumpet and vocal; Bernd Lhotzky on piano; Oliver Mewes on drums.
Each of those musicians savors the past and does it personal homage: Mewes suggests Catlett and Jones; Lhotzky celebrates Waller and Nat Cole; Dawson evokes Eldridge and Emmett Berry; Hopkins summons up Pete Brown and Carter. But this isn’t a repertory effort: the music produced here is both profound and hilariously flightly, skittering from surprise to surprise.
On the surface, Echoes of Swing might sound like a John Kirby Sextet spin-off, with tightly voiced ensembles and an affection for “jazzing the classics.” But they avoid the potential claustrophobia of these categories by being very eager to play hooky: you’ll hear echoes of many other styles and hints of other approaches, all fused delightfully into something both nostalgic and startling.
But don’t take my word for it. Here are Echoes of Swing performing James P. Johnson’s SWINGA-DILLA STREET (recorded only by Fats Waller and his Rhythm before this):
And here’s a Lhotzky original, HIS HONOUR AND THE VERMIN (FLEAS IN MY WIG):
MESSAGE FROM MARS offers a deliciously subtle and witty tasting menu of music — a disc you could listen to all the way through without the slightest hint of monotony; at the same time, you could savor each of the sixteen miniatures for its own surprises without ever getting tired. There I saw this group for the first and only time in Germany in 2007, thanks to Manfred Selchow, and found them exciting and deep: the disc captures their subtleties and drive wholly. It’s beautifully recorded and (as a bonus) has expansive notes by our own Dan Barrett.
The songs are SHAKE IT AND BREAK IT / MESSAGE FROM MARS (groovy and futuristic by Sid Phillips) / THE GHOST OF MARSDEN GHETTO (an atmospheric piece by Colin T. Dawson) / DON’T EXPLAIN / BUTTERFLY CHASE (Lhotzky-Chopin) / THE GOON DRAG (Sammy Price) / DELIRIUM (Arthur Schutt) / HIS HONOUR AND THE VERMIN / MOONLIGHT FIESTA (also known as PORTO RICAN CHAOS) / LIEBESLIED (Kreisler) / TWILIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS (by Chris) / DON’T SAVE YOUR LOVE FOR A RAINY DAY (an obscure Harold Spina pop tune) / ODEON (Ernesto Julio Nazareth) / BUGHOUSE (Red Norvo – Teddy Wilson) / SPRING IS HERE / GAVOTTE (Shostakovich).
Here’s what Scott Hamilton said about this band:
I’ve been listening to these guys for a few years now, and they’re always full of surprises. This CD is their best yet. They all have a deep understanding of the literature, and they play from inside. How they do it all with four instruments is beyond me.
But fortunately the CD isn’t beyond our reach: visit http://www.EchoesofSwing.com. for more information.
[*The Martians land in New York. They’re friendly interstellar tourists who want to learn everything about us — to swap information and customs. A curious New Yorker hands one of the Martians a toasted bagel to see what the alien might make of it. The Martian, to everyone’s surprise, sniffs the bagel, inserts it into where his jaws might be, chews it a bit, and says (through simultaneous translation), ‘Mmmmm. This would go great with cream cheese and lox.'”]