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Jazz Under the Radar (Pt. 1)

In Album Reviews on January 13, 2011 at 6:00 am

For most of us, Jazz is an art that already happened. When I say ‘jazz’ you think of the classics; you think John Coltrane or Miles Davis or maybe even further back to the big band days of super popular jazz. Even if you think of newer jazz, you are probably thinking of some painfully contrived sounding fusion or some free jazz that has been altogether too liberated from the bounds of tonality. That is a shame. 2010 was actually a great year for jazz. The underground scenes from New York, Boston, London, and across the world are running strong and putting out some incredible, innovative music. In this series I give you some of my favorites from the past year.

WestFirst to mind and first off the bat has to be West by Lawnmower. From the first few seconds of this album I knew it was going to be a totally new kind of a jazz experience, and even after listening over and over in the past few weeks, I still love the whole thing. Lawnmower is led by Boston ex-punk drummer Luther Gray, playing with Jim Hobbs on sax and Dan Littleton and Geoff Farina on guitar. The first thing you’ll notice about West is the shimmery guitar sounds floating their way through every song. The effect is to make West sound dramatic and wide-open, a lot like the post-rock you might find in indie circles.

Once the album really kicks in, the next thing you’ll notice is that there’s no bass. Putting out a jazz album, especially one with so much improvisation on it, without a bass is a hugely gutsy move, and much to the credit of Lawnmower, it really works. The name of the game for Lawnmower is restraint. Without a bass, its nearly impossible to get any real kind of a groove going between the sax and the drums. Gray completely avoid this and does a spectacular job filling just the right gaps in sound, and only the right ones, never giving you the wall of noise that would normally build out of a lineup like Lawnower’s. While Gray is keeping everything controlled, Hobbs does a standout job on sax, showcasing some of the best creative skills in the game today but still working hand in hand with Gray and never blowing the lid off the band. West is always kept in check while still going to some high emotional peaks and really distant tonal areas. The best way to describe it might be ‘perfectly sparse’.

Hobbs Rocking the SaxStandout tracks include Glass, I Love, and Two, but with the possible exception of I Love, I would strongly suggest listening to this album in order. Maybe one of the only detracting factors of West is that if you don’t start at the beginning, you might just ‘not get’ some of the songs, especially in the middle of the album where Hobbs’ free jazz influences really come out. The flip side though is that if you do listen to West in order, you probably will come out understanding, and really loving the free elements.

Unfortunately, the minimalism Lawnmower uses on their album also extends to their internet presence, but you can hear a couple samples from West on their myspace and buy the album from Portuguese jazz label Clean Feed.

Next time, Adam Lane’s Full throttle Orchestra, 2010’s answer to big band jazz…

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