Dec 31 2015
*** The Bird is the Worm 2015 Album of the Year ***
Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth – Epicenter
(Clean Feed Records)
It’s been a long time since I’ve encountered an album that synthesizes the mix of modern influences into a jazz recording like Chris Lightcap’s Epicenter. It is both a statement on where things are at and a forward-thinking treatise on where jazz could next go. It’s a vision of massive clarity and of unified precision. It’s not a process of add a little bit of this and a little bit of that and let’s see how you can mess with these different influences and shift things around and bring out different elements… that type of approach is well and good, but much in the same way of Todd Sickafoose’s 2008 release Tiny Resistors before it, Epicenter is the total picture. It’s the unified theory on This Is Jazz Today and also with the possibilities of the next step forward. Epicenter is a fully realized expression that it exists on its own, and it’s to be expected that other projects, other albums and compositions will gravitate to it as the realm of possibilities is revealed to be as much a consequence of creative pragmatism as it is the manifestation of unbounded imagination.
It’s your Bird is the Worm 2015 Album of the Year.
Here is a reprint of the album recommendation I wrote earlier this year…
There’s an anthemic nature to much of Chris Lightcap‘s style of modern jazz. This holds true whether he adopts an updated straight-ahead sound that echoes a familiar kind of bop or goes with something on the fringes that toes the line separating jazz from other genres. And this quality is recreated on his newest, Epicenter, where the all-star bassist’s Bigmouth ensemble deftly combines oddball meters, conventional song structures and stunning melodic washes. The linchpin of Lightcap’s singular approach is his immense talent for shaping the flow of his music, of evoking a sense of fluid motion across all of the abrupt surges and flurries, and allowing each of its varied personality traits to materialize. It’s the kind of thing that presents itself as strange and something different, yet perpetually reveals an enduring logic that makes it so easy to understand and embrace.
He leads right out with this talent on album-opener “Nine South.” Craig Taborn‘s keyboard is a whirling dervish of melody, shifting gears at well-timed moments to allow the tiniest pregnant pauses to color his hypnotic tempo. And this opening scene is then shot through with thick, distinctive harmonies from the duo tenor saxophone tandem of Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek, their long exhalations melting right into Taborn’s lines. And when Lightcap and Gerald Cleaver strike up a conversation on bass and drums, that propulsive chatter binds three into one, and is the difference between a roomful of competing conversations and the convergent flow of lyrical dialog so typical of Lightcap’s recordings. Yet, within his imaginative constructs, that fluidity allows the time and space for soloists to stretch their legs and a safe place to land when they return to earth. Lightcap creates a curious type of modern jazz, but it’s one where the conventional and familiar is just as able (and likely) to thrive as his more avant-garde leanings.
This isn’t anything particularly new to those familiar with him. His excellent 2010 release Deluxe was, itself, a huge statement. The transformation from your standard post-bop sound of 2002’s Bigmouth to the compelling Deluxe was positively arresting. Lightcap appeared to be onto something, a way of leveraging the percussive elements of the music to manipulate melodic fragments in a way that either synthesized them down to their essential nature or exaggerated their strength to a point almost beyond containment within the structure of the song. Deluxe was something of a house of mirrors, where the image staring back at you was undeniably familiar while the sonic distortions of the music’s flow elevated the familiar to something wondrous and not a little bit strange.
What’s notable about Epicenter is how much more daring and confident Lightcap sounds expressing his unique vision. On “White Horse,” he switches out bass for acoustic guitar, and the droning harmony of saxophones elicits a gorgeous melodic sigh that grows more brilliant as the ensemble jacks up the intensity. At two minutes in length, the relatively short duration would almost get it considered as simply an interlude were it not for its raw emotional power. That it transitions so effortlessly to the jaunty bop of title-track “Epicenter” is yet more evidence of how strong a guiding force the music’s flow is over the proceedings.
“Arthur Avenue” is the sign that the new divergence of “White Horse” wasn’t a one-off event. Following a contemplative bass and brushes intro, Taborn adds some mesmerizing calm of his own with equally introverted keystrokes. When Malaby and Cheek enter with long, flowing melodic sighs, the song becomes a lesson in the way a full moon on a dark night can be the prettiest and saddest thing ever. Very different emotions are evoked by the intense “Down East.” With its driving tempo and tightly channeled melody, it’s an anthem for a revolt, a shout-to-the-skies statement of protest. It’s also yet more evidence that Lightcap has shed himself of any obstacles impeding his imagination, not to mention his willingness to follow a creative vision and trusting in his ability to fly if it means jumping off a cliff. He is making something truly unique here.
“Stillwell” gets back to Lightcap’s quirky post-bop style. Notably, the track displays the song-like delivery inherent (though not always easily apparent) in his music. Perhaps it’s a result of the way he shapes the music’s flow or perhaps it’s the adherence to the idea of song for song’s sake that leads to the supremely fluid motion that resonates so strongly from his music… but causation aside, he brings it front and center on “Stillwell.”
The drifting ambiance of “Stone by Stone” possesses a serious potency, and its allure is that the ear continues to believe in the song’s state of serenity even as the two saxophonists raise up their voice in harmony while intertwining their melodic lines with Taborn’s hopscotch pattern on keys. Cleaver and Lightcap’s rhythmic touch is that of a river’s susurrant calm. And though it’s the melodic mainline punched into the heart of this song that is going to draw immediate attention, it’s the way the song carries those melodic fragments from first note to last, commingling them into one interrupted flow of ideas that is the key component to this song’s, this album’s preeminent success.
Bigmouth brings the curtains down with a massively fun rendition of Velvet Underground & Nico’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” They give the song a huge presence, and hang their hat square on the melody, and just go to town turning the song into their own while celebrating the original. This mix of modern jazz and classic rock, of old and new united, and of bringing yet one more daring, unexpected form of expression into the album’s fold… it’s an inspired way to close the album out and embodies so much of the spirit of this excellent recording.
Everybody should own this album. Everybody.
Your album personnel: Chris Lightcap (bass, acoustic guitars, organ), Craig Taborn (piano, electric keyboard, wurlitzer, organ), Tony Malaby (tenor sax), Chris Cheek (tenor sax) and Gerald Cleaver (drums, percussion).
Released on Clean Feed Records.
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Jazz from NYC.