Nobody writes more viscerally creepy, carnivalesque music than jazz pianist Frank Carlberg. Dutch new music group Clazz Ensemble has a new live album with Carlberg just out, titled Federico on Broadway. It’s more Lynchian than Felliniesque, and features Carlberg conducting the 12-piece band as well as leading them from the piano on the album’s final three tracks. This isn’t quite as phantasmagorically chilling as his 2010 Tivoli Trio album, but it’s close.
One of the main themes here is a Simpsons-style carnivalesque motif: if this was a Simpsons episode, it would be the one where the tsunami comes upriver and knocks out Homer’s nuke plant while everybody’s at the circus. Individual voices in the band converse in an wryly animated “what are we doing here?” vein as the group shifts from one surreal, often disquieting interlude to another. Variations on an eerie march appear in several places, strange music box themes take centerstage and then disappear, most vividly on a surreal marionette dance titled Tricks. They evoke a frenetic, urban Mingus bustle on the aptly titled Rat Race and maintain the out-of-breath tension with The Chase, Carlberg’s glittering cascades setting up alto saxophonist Paul van der Feen’s almost crushingly morose lines.
As dark as this music is, it’s not without its amusing moments: the moment where bandleader/tenor saxophonist Dick de Graaf tells trumpeter Gerard Kleijn to shut up midway through the shapeshifting title track is priceless. The twisted circus theme also serves as a launching pad for several deadpan cameos by individual members. As modern big band jazz, it’s artfully arranged and played with a smart balance of classical precision and unhinged ferocity from saxophonists Arno Bornkamp and Nils van Haften, trumpeters Frank Anepool and Charlie Biggs, trombonist Vincent Veneman and Koen Kaptijn, pianist Kris Goessens, bassist Guus Bakker and drummer Joost Kesselaar. As vivid, cinematic music, it packs a wallop, just as you would expect from this composer with a band this size.