Revisiting One of the Funnest Albums Released by a Big Band in Recent Years
One of the funniest, most individualistically lavish albums ever to be featured on this page is Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra’s Telepathy & Bop, streaming at Spotify. The album cover image says a lot: a cartoon cyclops bounding down the subway stairs at 14th St. and 6th Ave., just as the doors on the L train are closing.
Just to be clear, this isn’t electronic music. Green’s compositions are totally organic, wildly picturesque and often irresistibly cartoonish. Brian Carpenter‘s many surreal rediscoveries from the 1930s and 1940s are a good point of comparison; Juan Esquivel’s most adventurous largescale works also come to mind. Green is a brilliant musical surrealist: all options seem to be on the table as these unpredictable and counterintuitive sonic narratives unfold.
The seventeen-piece group open the Basquiat-inspired first track, Boy & Dog in a Jonnypump with a big, brassy splash and then a wry, staggered cha-cha; Green very subtly builds tiptoeing but pillowy suspense, up to a long, gritty, Balkan-tinged Sungwon Kim guitar solo. Accordionist Nathan Koci takes over as everybody but the rhythm section drops out, then Green brings back the string section – that’s the PUBLIQuartet with violinists Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth, violist Nick Revel and Amanda Gookin bolstered by violist Nathan Schram and cellist Clarice Jenson. As the orchestra punch in and out, Kim goes shredding again. By ten minutes in, Todd Groves has wrapped up his cheery flute solo and the strings do A Day in the Life. They would really love to turn you on.
Green conjures a busy tv studio setting, individual voices bustling and skulking down the hallway in The Lauer Faceplant, based on a real-life head-on collision with a tv personality who was enjoying his fifteen minutes at the time. A gruff sax solo (that’s either Groves or Charles Pillow) leads to the moment of impact, which leaves the orchestra reeling, echo phrases bounding back and forth. A balletesque flute theme gives way to trombonist Chris Misch-Bloxdorf’s return to tongue-in-cheek gruffness. Are we having fun yet?
The album’s title track is a triptych. The first part is a mashup of a woozily sirening cartoon tableau, Georgyi Ligeti somberness and a sideshow shooting gallery of individual voices, dat wabbit thumbing his nose at Elmer Fudd. Green brings back an expansion of an earlier Indian-flavored sax riff for the acidically resonant, fleetingly brief part two. The group tiptoe and pounce up to caffeinated clarinet and sax solos, the latter a duet with drummer Josh Bailey and a reprise of an earlier theme that’s too good to give away. Telepathic? Maybe. Bop? No question.
The gorgeously epic centerpiece here is La Victoire, inspired by Magritte’s famous cloud floating through a disembodied door. A wistful accordion theme quickly sinks in lush, nocturnal ambience, a jaunty sax solo leading the group upward as Michael Verselli’s piano adds incisive gleam amid the warmly inviting wash of sound. A dip to folksy contentment with the accordion quickly grows more luminous, sax leading the vividly triumphant upward drive: it’s Maria Schneider-worthy music.
Verselli introduces the distantly haunting, Ligeti-esque Nebula with a similarly glistening, eerily modal solo, drifting into deep-space minimalism and then icy contrasts. With individual voices shifting through a Darcy James Argue-esque staccato theme, the humor in Reverie Engine: The Ambiguous Rhumba is more distant, at least until a ridiculous synth solo. The album’s closing cut, Soir Bleu – A Rag of Sorts draws on a surreal Edward Hopper image of a clown in a Parisian cafe. After a flicker of Django Reinhardt, the group work a pulse and a theme that grow more carnivalesque, Koci’s ambiguous solo enhancing the unease. With the strings edging into the macabre and Verselli’s noir cabaret solo, it’s by far the album’s darkest number. Nobody in this band is ever going to forget playing on this record: the rest of a very inspired cast includes clarinetist Jay Hassler, trumpeter John Lake and bassist Brian Courage.
So where the hell was this blog the night the band played the album release show at National Sawdust in the spring of 2017? At Barbes – big surprise, considering the New York music scene that year. Rest assured, there will be a music scene in this city again…and let’s hope Green has another album ready to go by then. How long it takes this city to be open to that eventuality is really up to us.