I don’t like this record very much, but it’s not because it’s a double-CD record, because I love double albums, and it’s not because it’s a concept album, because I love concept albums, and it’s not because it’s free jazz, because I am often quite fond of free jazz. (Just ask my wife, who is not quite as fond.) I even like vampires, so I fully expected to love this all the way. That’s why I requested it.
But it doesn’t work, for me. The “concept” is restricted to the song titles, which are vampire-related but aren’t all that interesting; in fact, the two worst tracks are the ones that actually reference the concept out loud. (More about that later.) And the music—which to be fair, isn’t meant to be “fully” free, but rather a mix of scripted and free passages—never catches fire, never attains true beauty or power, and never catches my ear.
The kernel here is a trio consisting of Minasi on guitar, Ken Filiano on bass, and Jackson Krall on drums. On various tracks, this trio is augmented by various numbers of special guests (Matthew Shipp is the big name, guesting to good effect on “The Dark Side”, but we also get Herb Robertson on trumpet, Jason Kao Hwang on violin, and 16 others). I never really feel the basic trio, because they rarely sound like they are really playing together or listening to each other.
I’m going to lay this one on Minasi, as bandleader and composer. He just tries too hard to sound like late-period Mingus—Let My Children Hear Music is about it, and that’s far from Mingus’ most organized work, but there’s no way Minasi has the beauty and fire of Mingus. I’m also having a hell of a time with Minasi as guitarist. Most of his playing here is just skittery fretwork that provides texture but about as much real content as a Fisher-Price Popcorn Popper thingie. I’m not like a “ripping solos über-alles” guy, but some real tones might have helped tone the meandering nature of much of these songs.
The tracks that sound the most coordinated are the ones with Byron Olson as conductor, which I guess isn’t very surprising, but a) semi-free jazz with a conductor?, and b) “coordinated” does not mean “awesome”. Disc One’s “The Transformation” has some real drive and some great cello from Tomas Ulrich, but it just ends up going down the same path as all the others. The same happens with Disc Two’s “Blood Lust”, but that’s kind of inevitable with a track that weighs in at 17:25.
Best track: “The Hunt”, which manages to make good use of its drone structure to set the stage for nice intertwining tenor sax solos from Sabir Mateen and Joe McPhee, flugelhorn work by Paul Smoker, and trombonistics from Steve Swell. There is a tension here that actually makes the lack of melody into an advantage, and everyone is on point. I also kind of like the way Hwang kicks off the title track with a furious attack, and I wish Shipp had been part of the basic group, because he sets everything up so nicely in his one appearance.
Worst tracks: the ones with vocals. This means a tie between Carol Rennie’s inane fake-orgasming fake-serialism syllablorrhea on Disc One’s “Just One More Bite” and Peter Ratray’s JUST GODAWFUL “recitative” on Disc Two’s “Where You Gonna’ Go? Where You Gonna’ Hide?” The latter is probably supposed to be indicative of Minasi’s sense of humor, but I kind of hope not, because it’s not funny in the least: “Give up, give up, face your fate/ Vampire, vampire, don’t be late.” (I guess better if it’s just not funny than if it’s supposed to be scary. Because ye gods no.)
A bunch of musicians and critics are flipping for this, so maybe I’m wrong. But I don’t think so. Unless you are a musician or a critic, or a glutton for punishment, don’t touch this with a 10-foot wooden stake.
// Notes from the Road
"On release day for their latest Big Mess, Grouplove packed Baby's in Brooklyn for a sweaty show.READ the article