A Long-Awaited, Auspiciously Intense, Stripped-Down New Album from Guitarist Chris Jentsch
In keeping with the current paradigm, composer/guitarist Chris Jentsch writes a lot more than he records. But damn, when he records, he makes it count. It’s been eight years since Jentsch’s lavish, epic previous large-ensemble album The Cycles Suite. The one before that, The Brooklyn Suite, is his classic. His debut, The Miami Suite was a blast of sunshine with a hard-to-believe-we’re-all-here-but-let’s-do-it vibe. His latest album, Fractured Pop – streaming at youtube – is a departure, a quartet effort also available in a lush DVD package including “alternate takes, slide show music videos, a high-resolution FLAC file of the audio CD, PDF lead sheets of the tunes, and four of the composer’s own remix/mash ups,” as the packaging explains. Jentsch and his quartet are at I-Beam tonight, June 9 at 8:30 PM; cover is $15.
Jentsch sometimes evokes the angst and resonance of David Gilmour, the fluidity of Pat Metheny or the bucolic side of Bill Frisell, but ultimately he’s his own animal. As a big band jazz composer, Jentsch has a welcome gravitas, but also a dry and sometimes droll sense of humor. The new album, a mix of new, stripped-down arrangements of Jentsch’s big band arrangements, has both. The quartet opens with the title track, a rock anthem of sorts reimagined with in 7/8 time with Matt Renzi’s microtonally-tinged, Joe Maneri-ish sax over the swaying rhythm section of bassist Jim Whitney and drummer John Mettam. Radio Silence takes Abbey Road Beatles to new heights of poignancy and grandeur: Jentsch intermingles Renzi’s sax and his own chordal attack for an effect that evokes a much larger unit.
Likewise, the harmonies between Jentsch’s lingering chords and Renzi’s smoky sax in the strolling Are You Bye; Whitney adds a slinky, spot-on solo that Jentsch catapult out of, into the clouds and then to a wryly gospel-tinged variation on the main theme. The almost ten-minute take of the haunting, iconic Outside Line, the first of the Brooklyn Suite numbers here, switches out the orchestra for Jentsch’s resonant, sometimes burning chords, Whitney’s growly,, gritty solo, Renzi channeling every ounce of danger and energy . For those who know the original, it’s a revelation, sort of the musical counterpart to a sketch for a JMW Turner battle tableau.
Renzi’s bass flute over Jentsch’s careful, bittersweetly judicoiuus chords imbue the jazz waltz Old Folks Song (from the Cycles Suite) with a more distantly haunting intensity, the bandleader’s enigmatic solo raising the angst factor by a factor of ten, up to the elegaic chromatics that wind it out.
Route 666 – a title that surprisingly hasn’t been taken as much as it could be – works sax/guitar tradeoffs along with Jentsch’s sunbaked, lingering lines over a jaunty 10/4 strut up to a big, emphatic, anthemic drive. Meeting At Surratt’s follows a gorgeous, almost conspiratorial pastoral jazz groove into the reggae that Jentsch has embraced in his most psychedelic moments, Renzi switching to bluesy cello.
Imagining the Mirror, a suspenseful track from early in the Brooklyn Suite, opens as a joyously focused take on bucolic Led Zep, then Renzi’s sax takes it back to Brooklyn and Jentsch’s eerily reverberating, sparely exploratory lines. Cycle of Life, another Cycles Suite track, has a squirrelly intro, Jentsch’s spare phrases intertwining with Renzi’s sax and bass clarinet multitracks and the rhythm section’s tropical, insectile ambience, an allusively grim study in echo effects building to a steady, syncopated stroll with artful guitar/clarinet exchanges.
The album winds up with Follow That Cab, a brisk, purposeful, rather blustery segment from the Brooklyn Suite, reinvented here as stripped-down, bustling urban postbop, engaging Mettam’s drums far more, Renzi once again slipping into microtonal unease.