Jazz. Rock. Two genres that sometimes don’t always complement each other. For every interesting and entertaining band out there that pulls off some great album when combining the two styles like Steely Dan (or not; I’m aware there’s a whole sanction of music fans out there who still detest Becker and Fagen), there’s always some other group like Spyro Gyra just around the bend to remind you what can go wrong when it boils down to simple fusion. In the indie-label world, there are plenty of bands taking a crack at rocking out and bopping cool. Kevin O’Donnell’s Quality Six is great at what they do, successfully creating a dance-worthy and likable groove within their Kansas City swing. HiM on the other hand . . . well let’s just say that this group doesn’t really inspire me to do much other than hit the “next” button on my CD player. And when you only have six tracks on your album, that’s not such a good thing.
HiM is Doug Scharin’s pet project. Apparently Doug has managed to be one of those odd performers who has a bunch of odd labels thrown onto his music (like “afro-funk” and “electric-Miles”) that do their best to hint at what Scharin is all about. To me, though New Features is nothing more than your standard jazz entourage who are capable of long term improvisation plugging in and filling up an hour’s worth of time with nothing really interesting to play. Sure, Doug is capable of odd time signatures dotted with the musical squonk and blast inserted at odd intervals, but so are a million other jazz cats. The only thing “new” about New Features is probably the plastic it was pressed on.
The rest of HiM is fleshed out with Fred Erskin on bass, Carlo Cennamo on sax, and Josh LaRue on guitar (Scharin is the beat-keeper). The opening cut “Magnified Features” shows off the group’s prowess. It’s not too far out as the band keeps things locked down in a steady groove with a main saxophone theme giving the song its basic framework. At the expected intervals, everyone takes their solo, with Scharin and Erskin showing off their rhythmic chops. It’s not at all a bad intro to the band or the album, but one should enjoy the groove applied here while it lasts. The rest of New Features is hardly this comfortable.
The 18 minutes of “In Transition” will probably have you either pressing your own “next” button before the tune is halfway over, or it may put you into a brain lock. Yes, this is the track where the band “stretches out” and “shows what it can do.” Mainly it’s a chance for Josh LaRue to play some listless, trippy guitar lines that meander off into the universe and never come back. Cennamo also takes his turn at abstract boogie on his sax, but unfortunately HiM fails to expand any horizons in their good-natured attempts at free-for-all camping. Dot dot dash, bip bop crash.
“Out Here” trims the length back a bit, clocking it at slightly over ten minutes. This certainly helps the groove, at Scharin and company are forced to reign in their tendencies to wander aimlessly. Basically this is your standard jazz-funk lite, complete with wah-wah keyboards and one of those greasy sax phrasings that make you think it’s the 70s all over again. Again, LaRue plays right along with Cennamo, alternately backing the main theme and holding the song down with your standard rhythmic chording. I suppose it’s good for a late night drive type of situation, but honestly the whole homage to the ‘70s thing is wearing out fast lately.
“Clouds” on the other hand is HiM’s giganto foray into the realm of trip-hop. Plenty of backwards sounds, tripped out guitars and horns, and more boredom than you could hope for. The main problem I see with this group is their attempts at weirding or mellowing out always sound like some Grateful Dead throwback. I suppose if you ever considered Jerry Garcia an intimidating jazz guitarist, then you may find something to like here. Otherwise, you’re stuck with “Clouds” and more retro goofiness on “Were Once.” Even at less than six minutes these guys can annoy you quick with their predictable mood work. A bass tries to wax funky while a trumpet bleats out disconnected notes in the background. The guitar trips out, and man you are so out there, baby. Sure.
For the closing track “Sea Level”, HiM pull out all the stops and just freak out. By the time they do, you feel happy for them because it’s felt like that’s all they have wanted to do for all the time wasted up to this point. So freak out, HiM. Take your sub-standard jazz cat mentalities and shake ‘em all off. Get crazy! Yeah crazy, man. No. They can’t even do that right. The freak out is just more scratching around on the surface of the Cool while the instruments are pushed through every effects box that the band could get their hands on. Just remember that effects are no substitute for talent. And HiM is definitely no substitute for good jazz. Or jazz rock. Or music in general.