At times, the members of Dead Cat Bounce sound like they’re playing contemporary chamber music in a recital hall, savoring dissonance for its own sake, honing the exquisite tones from their woodwinds. In other places they’re a hard-charging funk band, with raucous sax solos screaming over a rhythm section that knows how to groove in 9/8 time. In “Township Jive Revisited”, they simply give themselves over to thick, joyful primary chords, wailing with abandon a tune you’ll walk around humming all day. You can tell this is a jazz band because it comprises a bassist, a drummer, and four guys playing sax (also flute and clarinet)—but “jazz” for them is less a genre shackle than it is a sandbox to explore their oddball musical whims.
Most of those whims come from saxophonist, composer, and liner-note philosophizer Matt Steckler, and his songs for the grant-and-commission-funded album Chance Episodes examine “memory’s haphazard way of bringing to the fore seemingly unrelated events, so that an episodic personal narrative is created, as if ‘by chance.’” Well, you gotta write something on your grant application, but someday Steckler should explain how that compositional approach differs from ANY OTHER MUSIC EVER MADE. Doesn’t all music, or at least all interesting music, incorporate seemingly unrelated events? Why, Lady Gaga’s most recent album recounts the actions of a government hooker, Bible people, and some guy from Nebraska! More to the point, music, simply because it’s music and it sounds intentional, creates narratives all the time, almost despite itself. Granted, most such narratives are listeners’ projections. I dare you to listen to an album and not hear it as some kind of “personal narrative,” even if the narrative is very simple—“this album is the Foo Fighters’ rockin’ return to form”, say. Music, like any artwork, challenges us to take up its disparate elements and make sense of them.
Like I was saying, Chance Episodes is Dead Cat Bounce’s rockin’ return to form… Wait, scratch that! It’s actually the sandbox in which they explore Steckler’s oddball musical whims. So not only is there a tribute to South African township jive, there’s a tune called “Silent Movie, Russia 1995” that indeed sounds like a pensive silent movie score with a killer klezmer-derived groove during the solo section. You can practically see villagers dancing in the snow, or whatever Russians did in 1995. (Lined up at McDonald’s?) “Far From the Matty Crowd” and “Salon Sound Journal” surely depict something, since they are multi-part suites that your local jazz combo won’t cover anytime soon. “Matty” is especially adventurous: it starts with a surging group head, all four saxes blowing a long and winding line of melody, until the rhythm section drops out for a free woodwind smear-a-thon, after which drummer Bill Carbone ratchets up some solo excitement, and then we’re back to the head. Like most of the songs here, “Matty” boasts a structure that’s as unique and memorable as its tune.
You know Steckler’s an egghead because he titled the opening song “Food Blogger”, and then stuffed it into classical sonata-allegro finery: theme A, theme B, development, theme A, theme B. But the themes are good ones—A is a gentle midtempo swing that could’ve come from the Shorter songbook, whereas B is a madcap walk that almost sounds like a Raymond Scott rarity. The song’s real draw is its solos. Over one flexible chord, altoist Terry Goss flies free of the beat with torrents of melody. Goss is followed by baritonist and rhythmic subtlist Charlie Kohlhase, who plays with the beat and jabs it from odd angles, like a boxer or a hungry predator.
“Tourvan Confessin’” is the most straightforward tune, the one you might find in a fakebook some day, head-solos-head. Its melody is a slow creeping stalk that builds through complex counterpoint, only to resolve in an unexpected key, like the lights suddenly coming on. Jared Sims’s tenor solo is exuberant, as though he can’t wait to overblow and screech; Steckler’s solo is a bit more studied, but you cut him some slack because he wrote the tune. Along with the resonance and perfect timing of bassist Dave Ambrosio, all these guys are fine players with individual voices. Their best group moment comes in the album closer “Living the Dream”, when they join together for some wild counter-pointillism.
Chance Episodes’ main weakness is that not every episode connects. “Watkins Glen” is memorable mainly for its bowed bass solo, never a good sign. And “Bio Dyno Man” is a study in abstraction, with seemingly random bits of chord and melody falling where they will, but without any sense of momentum, or any compelling reason to listen. Overall, though, Chance Episodes is lively, varied, and vividly recorded. It reminds us that jazz is a useful laboratory for highbrow art music experiments. More importantly, it cooks.