Slow Poke


by Ben Varkentine


So this, they tell me, is freeform jazz.

Slow Poke is Michael Blake, Tronzo, Tony Scherr and Kelly Wollesen. Blake plays saxophones, Tronzo guitars, Scherr bass and Wollesen drums. Tronzo or Blake wrote half of the songs on Redemption, the other are covers. Tronzo is also the most featured player, his slide, baritone and dobro guitar work lights a path through an album that is as sonically diverse as a Hal Willner’s production. Especially on covers of “Sixth Sense” by Dave Brubeck and “God Don’t Never Change” by Blind Willie Johnson, Tronzo is inspired.

cover art

Slow Poke



But the above should not be read as an attempt to diminish the contributions of the other players; Blake’s tenor sax is especially jazzy on “Dear Ear,” which he also wrote, and Scherr and Wollesen should not be dismissed either, both are tasteful and understated. The music is leisurely, considered and sounds like a conversation with some thoughtful friends. Your friends, presumably, don’t fit into any easily labeled box and why should your music? Go into this album with an open mind, and you will find much to delight. These are excellent players, and this is the kind of album you’d have to acknowledge the quality of even if you didn’t personally like it, fortunately, I do.

Slow Poke share with New Wet Kojak a quality of sounding as though they were writing music for films that haven’t been made yet, spacious and organic, compelling. It would probably be a nonlinear, Altmanesque film, and admittedly my tolerance for that is higher in music than in film. Music, for my money, is better at being impressionistic, when I watch a film I have this annoying tendency to expect a story. But good music can take you as far as the human mind.

Granted, this is the kind of record you have to be in the mood to hear. But it is not taxing so much as always interesting, sprawling, spiraling in directions you may not expect it to go, from old-fashioned rock to happy-boy cowpunk to jazz to marching band to experimental. Besides those songs already mentioned, Slow Poke convert Nirvana’s “Been a Son” to modern jazz with results that confirm for me again that if Cobain hadn’t chosen to join the club of rock greats one way, his songwriting could have done it for him. The closing cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” sounds a lot like what I imagine taking Quaaludes must be like. The echoey guitars are like a slowed-down reaction time, gradually shutting off different parts of the brain. It’s also as though the album is going to sleep, but the effect is anything but yawn-inducing. Rather it contributes to the idea of the album as a cohesive whole: The end of the album is as the end of a day.

The longer I listen to music, and especially since I started reviewing it and listening to an average of two new CDs a week, the more I become convinced of the old saying usually credited to Duke Ellington: That there are really only two kinds of music, the good kind and the bad. If no one had told me that Redemption was a jazz album I doubt that would have been the first descriptive term that came to mind, but “good” would come almost immediately.

And besides, how can you put down a band that thanks “the actress in the sex scene from The Name of the Rose in their liner notes? (It was Valentina Vargas, gentlemen.)

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