Not to put too much of a corny spin on things, but Peggy Lee and her band sound very inviting on Invitation.
Now that the groans and eye rolls are over and done with, just realize that this is kind of a big deal. Jazz cellists have paved a very bumpy road for themselves recently with no one opting to take the easy way out. Part of this may be the instrument’s relatively fresh status in the genre. It might also be a reaction to all those orderly exercises that aspiring cellists drilled through at a young age. What’s more, Invitation has been released by Canadian label Drip Audio, a headquarters of fearless noise, jazz, and rock smashed together. Taken together, I was expecting the sound of Peggy Lee and her band to be completely unhinged, regardless of the album’s title. What we all get is something warmer. Not comfort food, mind you — things can still get “out there” under her supervision — just avant-garde in more comfortable clothing.
Though Lee wields an eight-piece band, size matters not. There is a remarkable lack of clutter to Invitation‘s sound, even with two guitarists. Ron Samworth and Tony Wilson provide something of a post-rock shading instead of taking on smokin’ leads or nervy squalls. They are given licence to wander here and there, as on the introduction to “Why Are You Yelling?”, when the shutters of a steel string briefly give me a My Feet Are Smiling relapse. The 12-string solo in “Little Pieces” is a different thing altogether, marrying a light post-bop swing to blues-rock. As you’d expect, many melodic duties fall on the brass and reeds; Brad Turner on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jon Bentley on tenor sax and Jeremy Berkman on trombone. The part that is surprising is just how accessible the whole package is, from the first track to the last. Having Dylan van der Schyff as a drummer can tempt one into overusing him. His reduced role is not one of wasted time-keeping, but the use of restraint as an artistic tool.
And speaking of restraint, Peggy Lee rarely asserts herself here. Even when she’s mimicking the melody, her place in the mix is curiously obscured. It could be that Lee does not see herself as an aggressive leader. If Invitation were the work of Erik Friedlander’s band, the cello would have a different function. Perhaps Lee is just the catalyst, the conduit for all the different combinations of creativity flying through the studio air. And if that’s the case, then it works. If not, then Peggy Lee is doing all the wrong things in just the right way.