Over the course of nearly twenty years and half as many albums, this longstanding band has forged an astounding chemistry and become expert at juggling mind-boggling dexterity with inviting emotion and spirit. With drummer and composer John Hollenbeck, clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran, bassist Drew Gress, and accordionist Red Wierenga together, they are able to play just about anything. “JFK Beagle” begins with the sound of a hooting accordion followed by light toned clarinet and vibes all forming at a medium pace. The music builds a very interesting rhythm that changes as the piece evolves, and then Speed’s saxophone swirls with an effective solo over the clamoring rhythm. There are thick bass and cymbals present on “A-List”, soon joined by gentle vibes. Drew Gress’ bass is excellent here, thick and prominent, framed by accordion as vibes enter to add urgency to the music. The music moves dynamically forward into a thicker atmosphere, reaching forward dramatically as accordion and vibes scoot across the rhythm of the bass and drums. All of the instruments become deeply urgent and seething with energy as we reach the end. “Philly” comes out of the gate hard with some storming drums and hard charging saxophone. There is excellent bass underpinning it all, making for some white-hot modern jazz, with the other instruments framing the action from the sideline, like the accordion sustaining notes with the vibes shining using a very fast feathered touch. The music moves into a drum solo, then everybody climbs back aboard to finish the tune. Gentle clarinet and vibes, bass and drums open “Peterborough” with accordion fills adding to the sense of an easygoing medium tempo. There is a solo sport for solo accordion, which creates a wild menagerie of sound around the lightly toned band developing a wistful and evocative feel. Choppy vibes and accordion pick up the pace, adding a more distinctive feel amplified by some excellent bass playing. Slow blowing of breath and skittering percussion ushers in “Rose Colored Ryhthm” before a very choppy rhythmic feel develops, with scattered percussion and swirled saxophone making things punchy but abstract and hard to get a grip on. The group is very artistic, using deep rhythm, heavy drums, saxophone and vibes all pounding together for a massive beat. Vibes break out and solo over a very cool bass and drums rhythm. There is a sweeping accordion solo that borders on sounding psychedelic, then a strong section of tenor saxophone, digging in and really playing hard over ripe bass and drums. “If You See a Fox” has wonderful deep bass with light clarinet and vibes and a soft touch on drums, which build up a wide range of textures and hues. Their collective improvisation is very nice; and the range of colors and sounds that the band can conjure is impressive. The group is unpredictable all around that is part of what makes them so interesting. Truly understanding this mysterious band is like gripping a handful of sand or water, it slips through your hand… but the band’s face slowly fades like the Cheshire cat – it slips away but it always leaves a lasting smile. Super Petite - amazon.com (release date 6/24/2016)
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Joe McPhee – Flowers (Cipsela, 2016) *****
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