Asphalt Orchestra is a giddy band camp fantasy brought to life: What if the section leaders formed a marching band that was actually cool? They’d play only the music they listened to in the parking lot between rehearsals. Stuff like Frank Zappa, Bjork, and Swedish metal band Meshuggah would be in; showtunes and “The Horse” would disappear completely. Well, thanks to a Rockefeller Foundation grant and the Bang On a Can new music organization, the dream is realized. And the result is… a little geeky.
Don’t get me wrong, the Asphalt Orchestra can blow. Listening to the insane repeated notes of their take on Meshuggah’s “Electric Red”, my band director wife was impressed: “They really know how to use their tongues”. They also know how to count. Zappa and Meshuggah belong to an elite musical club: they’re widely known for writing songs with shifting meters, or with different instruments playing in different meters at the same time. “Electric Red” has passages in 23/16 or something. If you’re tempted to figure it out, you’re probably one of those maniacs who likes to complete Sudokus in your head.
The Asphalts play all this stuff with great precision and clarity. With the right arrangements, all that math becomes an afterthought. In Charles Mingus’s hard-to-count “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive Ass Slippers”, as in “Electric Red”, the multi-layered beats lay an unsettling foundation for beautiful long tones. The brass and woodwind chords smear into one another until, unmoored from familiar rhythms, they create musical structures that feel genuinely unique.
For all their obvious skill, the band has trouble giving their covers a personal stamp. (Aside from the sousaphone parts, of course.) Bjork’s original “Hyper-Ballad” is an amorphous mush of a song that evolves into a killer emotional hook. For his arrangement, trombonist Alan Ferber has kept the hook, which sounds great played by brass. He’s also completely altered the verses; they now boast more stuff going on, but they still meander. And without Bjork’s out-sized personality to help us wade through, they don’t meander in an especially compelling way. You may find yourself twiddling your thumbs until the band gets to the good parts.
Tenor saxophonist Peter Hess’s arrangement of Zappa’s “Zomby Woof” is more faithful. The super-tight band ably negotiates Zappa’s dense tangle of notes. All the same, I wish they had a soloist with as much personality, or even as much willingness to sound BAD, as Zappa’s guitar or Ricky Lancelotti’s voice. Instead they sound squeaky clean, which isn’t what you want for a song as idiotic as “Zomby Woof”.
The band’s commissioned originals make Asphalt Orchestra worth hearing. Balkan musical whirlwind Goran Bregovic contributes the drunken polka “Champagne”. Even better is “Carlton”, by Heidi Rodewald and Stew, which weds a sunshine melody to a funky stepping groove. And the album closes with the highbrow “Pulse March”, by Tyondai Braxton of the band Battles. The march puts a single four-note motif through its paces, tossing it from one instrument and pitch to another while mayhem swirls around it. It’s the piece that best shows off what the Asphalts are capable of doing. “Pulse March” would sound great in a concert hall or stomping through New York City traffic, and it’d surely land ‘em first place at Regionals.