Does listening to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players transform them from a seventeen-piece big band into a trio? One of the premises of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is that some particles are so small that merely observing them changes their state. It’s an extension of the basic idea that some tools are too heavy for the job: you don’t use a hammer where just your thumb would do.
Ultimately, Heisenberg’s postulate challenges us to consider whether some things will always be essentially unknowable: a very Islamic concept, when you think about it. But you hardly need special powers of observation to enjoy this big band’s energy, and catchy themes, and pervasive sense of humor. Their album Gradient is streaming at Bandcamp. There’s a high-energy sax solo on almost every one of bandleader/conductor John Dorhauer’s compositions here, sometimes expected, sometimes not.
The opening number, Boombox, makes a momentary Mission Impossible theme out of the old surf rock hit Tequila, then hits a Weather Report style faux-soukous bubbliness for a bit before shifting toward a gospel groove beneath Matthew Beck’s joyous tenor sax.
The second track, Nevertheless She Persisted is a slow, slinky gospel tune, Stuart Seale’s tersely soulful organ ceding the spotlight to a low-key, burbling trombone solo from Chris Shuttleworth and a big massed crescendo from the brass. Subject/Verb/Object has clever, rhythmless variations on a circling, Ethiopian-tinged riff, in an Either/Orchestra vein; the polyrhythms that ensue as the piece comes together and then calms to an uneasy syncopation are a cool touch.
Four Sides of the Circle begins as a stately, mysterious, Indian-tinged theme for choir and piano, then chattering high reeds take centerstage as the song almost imperceptibly edges toward dusky, modal soul over a familiar Radiohead hook.
The East African tinges return, but more cheerily in Plasma, with its rhythmically tricky interweave of counterpoint. Mahler 3 Movement 1 is exactly that: a moody, jazzed-up classical theme that rises from rumors of war, to brassy King Crimson art-rock fueled by Chris Parsons’ burning guitar, to chipper, Gershwinesque swing over a quasi-reggae beat and then back.
The record winds up with the Basketball Suite. The first segment, Switch Everything is the band’s Dr. J (that’s a Grover Washington Jr. reference). Part two, Point Giannis is probably the slowest hoops theme ever written: Dan Parker’s hypnotic bassline brings to mind a classic Jah Wobble groove on PiL’s Metal Box album. The band take a turn back toward booding, pulsing Ethiopiques with Schedule Loss, Adam Roebuck’s incisive trumpet contrasting with James Baum’s suave, smoky baritone sax. It ends with the album’s warmly funky, vamping title track An entertaining achievement from an ensemble that also includies saxophonists Natalie Lande, Kelley Dorhauer and Dan Burke, trombonists Michael Nearpass, Josh Torrey and Dan Dicesare, trumpeters Jon Rarick and Emily Kuhn and drummer Jonathon Wenzel.