The wryly entertaining, irrepressibly catchy new album We Are the Orchestra, credited to the Daniel Bennett Group and streaming at Bandcamp, is actually the work of just two guys in the studio. Bandleader Bennett, who plays a small orchestra’s worth of reeds along with piano and percussion, admits that the idea was pretty crazy. But he and guitarist/banjo player Mark Cocheo pulled this eclectic, pastoral theme and variations together with boundless energy and an unstoppable sense of humor.
Bennett came up with the idea after arranging several Verdi opera themes for small ensemble for a Whitney Museum exhibition. The record is a mix of some of those numbers mingled with Bennett’s witty originalsf you have to pin a label on it, you might call it it film music: it’s rooted in jazz, but bustles with catchy rock hooks and is more than a little cartoonish in places. He and Cocheo have an ongoing weekly Tuesday night 7:30 PM residency at an unexpected and easy-to-get-to spot, the hideaway third-floor Residence Inn bar at 1033 6th Ave., a block south of Bryant Park on the west side of the street. Until word gets out about how much fun Bennett and Cocheo are having with it, you may have the place to yourself.
The new album’s first track is Loose Fitting Spare Tire, a briskly strolling highway theme assembled from crisp Cocheo guitar multitracks and some breezy alto sax from Bennett. It comes across as a more tightly wound take on Bill Frisell. Cocheo breaks out his banjo for a long, spiky solo over the changes in I’m Not Nancy, Bennett switching to flute.
Gold Star Mufflers is a twistedly surreal, uneasily psychedelic detour, banjo mingling with the piano. The first of the Verdi variations, Theme From Ernani is recast as a bittersweet, bossa-tinged tune with a warm, Memphis-flavored soul solo from Cocheo. Refinancing for Elephants – which wasn’t written by Verdi – brings in unexpected Irish flavor via Bennett’s tricky flute work.
Inside Our Pizza Oven, a real showstopper live, presumably could have been written by Verdi but also wasn’t. It’s got some absolutely gorgeous, Balkan-flavored microtonal, melismatic work from Bennett over a hypnotically strummy backdrop. Theme from Il Trovatore – which wasn’t written by Bennett – works much better as waltzing spaghetti western jazz than you might imagine. Carl Finds His Way – which was – brings the album full circle, Cocheo hitting his distortion pedal for extra edge and bite as Bennett swirls overhead.