It’s a good time to be a jazz fan. Playing Changes, Nate Chinen’s celebrated “state of the union” book on contemporary jazz, is an exhaustive resource of today’s working artists. Under-the-radar bands like GADADU, Twin Talk, and GoGo Penguin are keeping the genre’s flame alive in clubs and on albums. And Typical Sisters are making music that creates a unique blend of the genre’s familiar and not-so-familiar tropes.
The Chicago-based band’s second full-length album, Hungry Ghost, shows them alternating between gently understated and defiantly fiery, with guitarist Gregory Uhlmann spooling out a busily melodic style reminiscent of Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot. With bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Matt Carroll, the trio clicks into place, with a sound that’s not a million miles removed from their self-titled 2016 album, but more lush and intoxicating. That shift is perhaps due in part to the mixing and co-production of Tim Carr, who creates some gorgeous sonic atmospherics that recall classic ECM or Blue Note jazz titles.
The compositions on Hungry Ghost are memorable to the point where they can often sound like long-lost standards. On the opening title track, Sommers and Carroll simmer along with a tight, busy rhythm section as Uhlmann’s guitar creates cascades of melody. On Sommers’ “Goner”, his bass is the perfect anchor for the rest of the band’s flights of fancy, but the extended soloing never sounds overly indulgent; rather, it always seems to act in the service of the song, even during Uhlmann’s noisy yet eloquent meltdown.
Typical Sisters also manage to stretch out the trio format beyond what is normally expected of the…well, “typical” trio sound. “Excavate”, for instance, combines low-key found sounds with exotic tempos, providing a great launching pad for the band to truly cut loose. The loose waltz of “Benjamin” – inspired by composer Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”, itself an interpretation of a James Agee prose-poem – features a lot of twangy electric guitar that seems both out-of-place and oddly comforting. On the closing track, “Young and Foolish”, the band pulls back the throttle with a gentle instrumental lullaby that manages to soothe yet still contain enough rough edges to inch it into Medeski, Martin & Wood territory. Think “The Bad Plus without the penchant for oddball covers.”
The title Hungry Ghost refers to the Chinese Buddhist idea of a being whose appetites cannot be satiated. While this notion may be more than a little familiar in our technology-obsessed culture, Typical Sisters have found a way to harness aural desires into 45 gorgeous minutes of studied yet deeply emotional technique.