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Reviewers: Glyn Pursglove, Jonathan Woolf

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Darrell Katz

Rats Live On No Evil Star

JCA RECORDINGS JCA1804 [75:59]

 

 

1.Rats Live On No Evil Star (Katz)

How To Clean a Sewer (Katz)

2.Three Or Four Kinds Of Blues (Katz)

3.Windfall Lemons (Katz)

4.Attention (Katz)

5.To An Angel (Katz)

6.Prelude / Hiro Runs The Devil Down (Honshuku, Sherrah-Davies)

7.The Red Dog Blues (Katz)

8.Red Sea (Katz, Shrimpton)

Darrell Katz and the Jazz Composers’ Alliance Orchestra:

Darrell Katz (composer, conductor, arranger, guitar), Helen Sherrah-Davies,

Mimi Rabson (5-string violins) Vessela Stoyanova (marimba, vibraphone),

Rebecca Shrimpton (voice), Hiro Honshoku (flute, piccolo, electronic wind

instrument), Rick Stone (alto sax, clarinet), Ken Field (alto sax), Phil Scarff

(tenor sax, soprano sax, sopranino sax, clarinet), Melanie Howell-Brooks

(baritone sax, bass clarinet), Jeff Classen, Paul Meneghini, Water Platt (trumpets),

Jim Mosher (French horn), Bob Pilkington, David Harris (trombones), Bill Lowe

(tuba, bass trombone), Mike Conner (drums) John Funkhauser (b) Norm Zocher

(guitar) Ricardo Monzon (percussion), Hey Rim Jeon (piano), Alizon Lissance

(voice, piano), Ralph Rosen (blues harp), Juno Fujiwara (cello).

Rec. WGBH Fraser Studio, Boston, USA, December 2016-January 2017.

This new album by Darrell Katz and ‘his’ JCA Orchestra has as its title – Rats Live On No Evil Star – one of the longest palindromic sentences (that makes any kind of sense) in English. As one might anticipate from a man who chooses such a title, the music of Darrell Katz is far from straightforward.

Katz works with thoroughly heterogeneous materials but, as he is quoted as saying in the Press Release which accompanies this disc: “I’m always striving for unity. And balance. And at the same time, I’m into having a lot of different elements. It’s all a work in progress”. Here, the “different elements” include sounds and methods from the jazz, classical, blues and rock traditions. The unity is achieved through the tight focus of Katz’s vision and intelligence, as well as in the quality of those performing his music. The JCA Orchestra was formed in 1985 and, though there have inevitably been many personnel changes since then, there has also been a valuable continuity, so that all the voices here serve a common purpose.

Though all the tracks on this album deserve (and reward) attention, I will concentrate my comments on just three tracks which seem to me to be both characteristic and of exceptional quality. One is the title track –Rats Live On No Evil Star – which might be thought of as a jazz version of the concerto grosso, insofar as it makes use of small group of soloists (the concertino) in a shifting relationship with a larger orchestral group (the ripieno ). In ‘Rats’ Katz recycles/revises a work he first wrote in 1987, when he was commissioned to write a piece for the duo Marimolin, made up of violinist Sharan Leventhal and marimba player Nancy Zeltsman, to play with Orange then Blue, a twelve-piece ensemble led by George Schuller – based in Boston, like Katz’s JCA and, like them, an ensemble which drew on a great variety of musical styles and sources. Here, on ‘Rats Live On No Evil Star’, the marimba is played by Vessela Stoyanova and the violin by Helen Sherrah-Davies, the first Bulgarian by birth, the second British, but both now based in Boston. No firm wall separates concertino and ripieno in Katz’s composition. Though both Stoyanova and Sherrah-Davies get solo space, so too do Rick Stone and Phil Scarff, technically part of the ripieno. Another important figure on this lengthy track is the excellent vocalist Rebecca Shrimpton, who has a real understanding of how Katz’s music works (the sleeve-note tells us that she has been working with Katz for almost 20 years). She can be heard on previous recordings by Katz, such as Jailhouse Doc With Holes in her Socks (2016) – see Jonathan Woolf’s review http://www.musicweb-international.com/jazz/2017/Jailhouse.htm , Why Do You Ride (2015) and The Death of Simone Weill (2002). On ‘Rats Live On No Evil Star’ her contribution is wordless, but no less important for that. Her vocal agility, especially at the top end, adds importantly to the instrumental textures. The track starts off quite ‘politely’, but the rhythms become more dance-like and the volume increases, the full band makes the mood more raucous, before everything settles back to a darker version of the initial ‘politeness’. (As that simplified description may suggest, the palindromic title isn’t entirely irrelevant).

My second choice is ‘Windfall Lemons’, which is the central panel of the three-part suite ‘How To Clean a Sewer’, and which sets (very beautifully) a poem by Katz’s late wife Paula Tatarunis. The oblique, but resonant, text is so well complemented by the subtlety of Katz’s writing that the two seem organically bound together. Both poem and music are full of surprises – which have knack of seeming natural (indeed inevitable) once they have happened. Shrimpton is the vocalist again and the way she handles both text and music is exemplary. This is ‘jazz and poetry’ of a kind far superior to the awkward juxtapositions often presented under such a banner. This track might be a good place for newcomers to Katz to start, especially if they are suspicious of his unorthodox approach; it isn’t as abrasive or challenging as his music sometimes is and the craftsmanship which underlies this track is surely unmistakable, serving as a reassurance, as it were, to carry with one into some of his ‘wilder’ moments.

I close by drawing attention to the penultimate track on the CD, ‘The Red Dog Blues’ – both text and music here being the work of Katz himself. The title is explained in Katz’s sleeve-note: “The Red Dog Inn was an art deco theatre in Lawrence, Kansas, which by the ’60s had become a rock club. I sometimes played there”. (Born in 1951, Katz was raised in Kansas, though he has lived and worked around Boston since 1975. He has taught at the Berklee College of Music since 1989). ‘The Red Dog Blues’, written in 2015, is a visceral statement of socio-political outrage at such figures as the Baptist Minister Rev. Fred Phelps who organized disruptive demonstrations at the funerals of gay men, his much-used slogan being “God Hates Fags”, and the long-serving Texas Governor Rick Perry, a staunch conservative: I quote from Katz’s text “Governor Perry…believes in the hangman, but not in evolution”, and one Donald J. Trump: “Donald Trump / Is a vicious punk / With a big mouth full of lies / and a soul filled with junk / he likes to brag about his tower / and his haircut is bad news / He’s in a solid gold toilet / with the red dog blues”. Katz’s ‘verse’ is certainly pretty rough and ready, but it serves its purpose. Indeed, the last two lines here seem strangely prescient. They were written in 2015; it was in 2018, when he was then President Trump that Trump requested, from the Guggenheim Museum, the loan of a canvas by Van Gogh, to be hung in the Trumps’ private rooms in the White House. The Guggenheim turned down the request but offered instead (with the artist’s approval) a work by the Italian Maurizio Cattelan; entitled ‘America’ this was fully-working toilet made of 18 carat gold!

The vocalist on ‘The Red Dog Blues’ is Alizon Lissance who, though she doesn’t have an especially bluesy quality to her voice, delivers the fierce text with admirable clarity. There are thoroughly blues-grounded solos by, among others, Ralph Rosen (blues harp) and Melanie Howell-Brooks (baritone sax). Katz’s writing for the orchestral ensemble is suitably brash; it packs a considerable punch but is not without its moments of subtlety.

In some ways, Katz’s adventurous and imaginative orchestration reminds one (without ever being derivative) of Carla Bley; its expression of political anger takes one back to Mingus and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. If you have heard previous recordings by Katz and the JCA Orchestra you will surely want to hear this one too. If you are unfamiliar with this ensemble/composer then, for British listeners at least, a reasonable premise to work on might be that if you enjoy(ed) Loose Tubes and/or Mike Westbrook’s music with large bands, then do please try the work of Katz and the JCA Orchestra. I think it is something you will enjoy.

Glyn Pursglove

 


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