[16 July 2008]
My friend Joel has said more than once that jazz ought to be more popular with young folks enamored of indie-rock—“If they want to hear some creative, independent music that’s out on the edge and grooving, why aren’t they in the jazz clubs of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn?” Always seemed like a good question to me.
Todd Sickafoose—a bassist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist who has been playing and touring with indie force Ani DiFranco—is plainly on Joel’s wavelength. In Tiny Resistors he has created a musical document that weds the indie-rock aesthetic to jazz practices with seamless pleasure. Pop advantages such as genial melody and rich texture abound. But at the same time the long-form compositions are challenging and give the players chances to improvise with personality.
The more listens you give Tiny Resistors, the harder it is to nail down its method and describe the result of its stylistic blend. It is not a jazz record made with rock rhythms and electric instruments—this is no “fusion” effort. Neither is it a pop record sprinkled with jazz solos or colored by jazz affections such as a walking bass line. What, then, do I mean when I say that it blends indie-rock and jazz?
“Bye Bye Bees” is the most plainly “indie” tune here, with a groove established by straight quarter note repetitions on guitar, underpinned by syncopated handclaps and a whirling synth of some kind. Atop this, add the whistling of indie phenom Andrew Bird and a distant telephone-filtered vocal by DiFranco—then layer in the horn section and a set of grooved syncopations on guitar, bass and percussion. It’s no jazz record. While Alan Ferber gets in a somewhat standard trombone solo amidst the textural glory, most of the song is an exercise in brilliant layering—with Sickafoose playing not just bass but also piano, celeste, and other keyboards as necessary to enrich the sonic stew. It has as much in common with Philip Glass or Radiohead as it does with Miles Davis. And it’s a complete pleasure to hear.
The compositions that follow a more classic “jazz” approach are still easy to distinguish from traditional jazz. “Pianos of the 9th Ward”, for example, is a waltz with a clear melody stated in a mournful way by piano and guitars, then backed by a subtle use of Sickafoose’s small horn section. The recording features an acoustic bass solo (where the leader’s training with Charlie Haden is evident) and a statement on muted trombone by Ferber before the melody returns. The structure, therefore, is just like a jazz tune, but the feeling is less so. The deliberate waltz time has a gentle folk quality, and the arrangement pulls instruments in and out of the mix as if this were a kind of rock chamber music. “Everyone is Going” fits this mold too—it features a catchy melody on electric guitar (Adam Levy and Mike Gamble, in tandem) then reiterated by the horns, all over a stuttering groove in 11/8 time, setting up a ruminative trumpet solo from Shane Endsley that builds power back into the melody.
The jazz that Tiny Resistors most resembles is the music of folks like Bill Frisell. Frisell has built a body of work that begins with jazz but has morphed over the years into something distinctive and beyond category—a form of American music that draws in the most catholic way from all the strains of our various folk musics. And so it is no surprise to discover that Sickafoose has been rubbing elbows, for example, with violinist Jenny Scheinman and trumpeter Ron Miles (a frequent Frisell collaborators), with guitarist Nels Cline (also a musician with one foot in creative jazz and another in indie-rock with Wilco), or with pianist and composer James Carney. It’s also no surprise to find this album out on Cryptogramophone Records, the eclectic home to so many brilliant west coast musicians who see jazz as their jumping-off point for destinations both further out and compulsively listenable. Sickafoose was born and educated in California but has lived in Brooklyn since 2005, and his music has a freshness one might associate with either place.
The real of joy of Tiny Resistors is how it banishes the sterility that is sometimes associated with both precious indie-rock and intellectual jazz. A tune like “Warm Stone” builds from gut-bucket groove to get increasingly complex as the horns dig out the dirt over the beat. “Paper Trombones” begins with Sickafoose’s distinct use of celeste, but the track quickly initiates an irresistible ride over a heartbeat bassline, with muted horns and guitar sounding like Ellington-Meets-Zappa. And the title track rollicks in 6/8 time, allowing Andrew Bird to send his violin in a lovely arc over the punching horn melody. If these tunes occasionally get quiet and delicate, then they do so with their edges still showing.
Indeed, the ballad “Whistle” may be the high point of Tiny Resistors. Simple of melody at first, Sickafoose allows the tune to twist harmonically to discover itself, and he provides a gentle arrangement that uses the horns as pure accompaniment and that does not bring in Bird’s actually whistling until the theme is restated.
Todd Sickafoose has made two previous solo albums, available on iTunes if not easy to find otherwise. Tiny Resistors should lift his name and reputation to the next level. More orchestral and more dazzlingly colored than either Dogs Outside or Blood Orange, this new disc is a statement of purpose and a call to young listeners, the very call my friend Joel believes in: Come one, come all! Come ye young people and dig some jazz! It’s the real thing: true independent music, music with daring and rhythm and guts and melody. And trombones and soul and barely detectable record sales.
Still, here’s hoping as always for a greater impact and visibility for a musician deserving in the extreme.