This music is never indulgent or self-consciously inaccessible. In fact, it's remarkably straightforward -- albeit in the sense that it won't remind you of many things you've ever heard.
One of the great things about supergroups is that they are…great (or super -- take your pick).
The reason so many so-called supergroups have flamed out, at least in the rock world, is because of those twin-killers of chemistry: ego and ambition. Think the Police. Other times, some or all of the musicians simply could not coexist. Think Cream.
This is seldom an issue in jazz circles for one major reason. All jazz outfits, comparatively in terms of talent and acumen, are by default supergroups. Yet big heads are rare. This is not to suggest that jazz musicians -- particularly the fortunate handful who have achieved some degree of fame -- are impervious to either ego or ambition, but it applies according to scale.
Which brings us to Garage A Trois. Now four official releases in, they are also officially a quartet, having added vibes wizard Mike Dillon on their second outing, and this release, like 2009's Power Patriot, features keyboardist Marco Benevento standing in for -- or replacing -- guitarist Charlie Hunter.
A case could be made that this band gets better with each release. In truth, each previous album has unique and indispensable moments, and all of them are definitely recommended. Nevertheless, Always Be Happy, But Stay Evil sounds like a serious band trying to make a cohesive, focused statement. They have, managing to deepen their distinctive sound with a set of songs that are strategically sequenced for maximum effect.
None of this should be at all surprising. The quartet, very familiar with one another (especially Dillon and sax player/spiritual leader Skerik, who currently work together in both the Dead Kenny Gs and Critters Buggin'), is fully playing to its individual and collective strengths. And with all respect to the incredible guitarist Charlie Hunter (who played on the first two albums), Marco Benevento is a perfect fit for this band: his combination of impeccable chops and quirky cleverness is an ideal match for Skerik's saxophonic assault. Finally, there is Stanton Moore, the funky drummer, who rolls with the punches, providing (mostly) muscle or finesse with typical Big Easy élan.
Between Benevento's swarm of sounds and Skerik's patented saxophonic stylings, it is not always possible to determine which instruments are doing what, but, of course, it doesn't matter. These guys are tinkerers, but they are also masterful technicians; as always, to expand on convention generally presumes a certain level of mastery. To make music that sounds like this (and nothing else sounds like this), you have to not only know how it will sound, but how to make those sounds.
That last point might get to the heart of what makes this particular incarnation of Garage A Trois so powerful. Skerik has spent more than a decade whittling away at jazz (and musical) cliché, cultivating a unique and rewarding approach. There is not really anyone else out there who can encroach on the territory he's created for himself and his various ensembles. Add the prodigiously, almost frighteningly talented Benevento -- another musician who has worked hard and had a lot of fun obliterating the typical rules of engagement -- and we have two of the more audacious iconoclasts on the scene.
It may (but shouldn't) be surprising to know that, despite the aforementioned accolades, this music is never indulgent or self-consciously inaccessible. In fact, it's remarkably straightforward, albeit in the sense that it won't remind you of many things you've ever heard. Although if you have spent any time appreciating Morricone film scores and are at least acquainted with free jazz from the late '60s and early '70s, and won't blink if those two source points get funneled through a distinctively funky filter, this may be something you want a part of. The compositions on this set are incredibly tight and most clock in at four minutes or less. If they were longer, that would, naturally, be okay as well, but the restraint demonstrated is clearly in the service of atmosphere and effect.
Getting back to how well the material is sequenced: the first four tracks, all composed by the ever-improving and impressive Mike Dillon, are full of the filthy mirth one might expect and upbeat -- and with Stanton Moore in the house, the emphasis is on the beat. The next several songs are showcases for the other members: "The Drum Department" allows Moore to exhibit his "drum pummeling" as the credits boast, while "Swellage" and "Thumb" (both composed by Benevento) are like surreal cartoon music -- Carl Stalling on shrooms. "Baby Mama Drama" is a bit darker and enables Skerik to creep from corner to corner, imparting a film noir vibe. The noir/soundtrack elements (complete with echoey effects and cries that may be human or…not) build to an inevitable and appropriate conclusion with a cover of John Carpenter's "Assault on Precinct 13" theme. It is a brilliant choice that epitomizes the feel of the entire album: gritty '70s underground shot through a postmodern prism as only these four cats could conceive it.
It's always difficult, to varying degrees, to try and describe music in a way that is both honest and accurate. How, ultimately, can you choose words to reflect a form of expression that purposefully eschews spoken language? You are entitled, if not obliged, to report what types of feelings and images the sounds evoke, and if you are familiar with the artists' aesthetic, you can reasonably offer some suggestions of what they may be after. It is still, in the end, a hopelessly inadequate way of articulating what Garage A Trois pulls off yet again. Perhaps the most efficient strategy would be to say, simply and urgently: you need this shit.