Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Michael Zerang and Blue Lights - Songs from the Big Book of Love (Pink Palace Recordings, 2015)

For the past several decades, Chicago has been an epicenter of experimental jazz, whether with the AACM, or the scene that grew around the Velvet Lounge with musicians like Fred Anderson and Ken Vandermark in the more recently. This spirit of exploration remains strong today with groups like Michael Zerang & The Blue Lights. Led by Zerang on drums, the group consists of Mars Williams on alto and tenor saxophones, Dave Rempis on alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, Josh Berman on cornet, and Kent Kessler on bass. This album was recorded live in early 2014 and opens with “Dancing for Cigarettes” which features vigorous and fierce saxophones and drums developing a strong riff. There is an alto saxophone solo that melds with the ferocious drumming to lead the full band into a proud and imperious improvisation. Williams takes the baton and uses his tenor saxophone to spout snarling lines of sound over protean accompaniment. Zerang develops a funky drumbeat to underscore “To Tu” where the two saxophonists layer their voices atop one another and one may break out and solo before returning to fold, tagging the other to take their place. The musicians in the band are relentless in support of one another, allowing one of the saxophonists to fly close enough to the sun to offer forth an overblown howl of pure emotion. “Bright Lights and Saucy Tights” is a wailing and happy sounding tune led by a fine Josh Berman cornet excursion. He dabs and swirls musical paint like an artist, using color and pressure to vary his approach to the music. This is followed by the two saxophones entering into a collective improvisation that is a wild and fearless flight into the unknown, before returning to the original rollicking beginning. Torrid saxophone and drumming egg each other on in a riff – solo – repeat format that is very exciting. The baritone saxophone of Dave Rempis anchors “The Third Pythia of Flin Flon (for Shirka)” and its grinding strength allows many possibilities for the rest of the musicians to expound upon. Berman solos against what seems like a physical form, a granite edifice of deep sound that has a majestic, yet ominous presence. He breaks out to burst against to this canvas, blowing hot, scalding lines of brass. “Chicago Rub Down” ends the album in riveting fashion with massive high stakes all out saxophones and drums pummeling and howling. There are epic sections of horn riffs powering the drums and then the percussion returning the favor. This is a fine ending to a truly excellent album of Chicago jazz. It is brawny, tough, a little bit free, and all heart, and shouldn’t be missed. Songs From the Big Book of Love - Pink Palace Recordings.

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