Among ambitious, relatively young jazz groups, Cowboys & Frenchmen are a lot closer to the virtuosic fractal flex of Kneebody than the goofy insiderness of Snarky Puppy. They did what every band ought to be doing: they put out a live album, Our Highway, streaming at Bandcamp and recorded in the nick of time just before the lockdown in the pristine sonics of the now-shuttered Subculture.
As the bandname implies, these guys are irreverent. The music is energetically picturesque, frequently springboarding off comfortably homey, pastoral themes. This is a concept album, a boisterous band-on-the-road saga with an accompanying video travelogue.
Alto saxophonist Ethan Helm’s calm, liquid solo intro to the night’s first number, American Whispers: Pines is a red herring. In a flash, the band come bustling in, rushing to make it to the next stop on the tour. Pianist Addison Frei’s terse Shaft-y riffs anchor the tightly flurrying clamor, down to a little hint of boogie and flickers of wry lounginess. Bassist Ethan O’Reilly is a sudden voice of reason, introducing a moment of clarity before the trick ending. No spoilers: it works with the crowd.
Alice in Promisedland, a Alice Coltrane homage is built around Frei’s reflecting-pool ripples and O’Reilly’s lithely muscular bassline, Owen Broder’s alto sax entwining airily with Helm’s flute. He sticks with the flute over drummer Matt Honor’s snowstorm cymbals. and more Shaft/Mission Impossible piano from Frei, until O’Reilly hits a racewalking pace in the next segment of American Whispers. This one’s a portrait of torrential streams and an old church, captured with wistful gospel-infused warmth by sax, piano, a terse bass solo and an oldtimey anthem of sorts on the way out.
A similar, somewhat darker gospel-inspired atmosphere finally emerges in Where Is Your Wealth: the degree to which this is either sarcastic, a philosophical inquiry, or a stickup, isn’t clear. The big epic here is the final American Whispers tableau, Mountains. The range looms ahead, imposing, as birds cluster tightly over the slopes, Frei channeling the spring runoff, or at least so it seems. The group meet the challenge with an insistent pulse, swaying, swinging and finally hitting a disquieting series of echoes. The scenery changes with the rhythm, from defiant insistence to brisk swing, a long Helm solo with Broder shadowing him on baritone and then leading a calming downward trajectory, solo, into the night’s closing, benedictory nocturne, The Farmer’s Reason. It’s easy to imagine the band highfiving each other afterward: good thing somebody had the presence of mind to record the night !