CD reviews

CD REVIEW: Riverside – The New National Anthem

Riverside – The New National Anthem
(Greenleaf Music GRE-CD-1056. CD Review by Jane Mann)

The New National Anthem is the second album from the collaborative quartet Riverside. It celebrates the work of American composer Carla Bley. Her partner, American jazz legend Steve Swallow, plays electric bass in this quartet. Swallow has an extraordinary jazz history – he’s played with a diverse set of musicians including Gary Burton, John Scofield, Iggy Pop and Stan Getz but crucially, for this album, has worked closely with Carla Bley since the 1980s.

The other members of Riverside are stars in their own right, though of different generations. There’s versatile American trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas, now in his 50s, who came to fame working with John Zorn, and whom I last saw playing the music of Nina Rota with Richard Galliano, for me one of the best concerts in recent years. Then there’s young (30s) Canadian reed player Chet Doxas, who has also played with Carla Bley and Maria Schneider, among others. His brother Jim Doxas, most famous for his inventive percussion for the song Belleville Rendez-Vous from the award winning film Les Triplettes de Belleville, is on drums.

The first Riverside release was a tribute to Jimmy Giuffre. Swallow was an insider on that recording as well – having played with Giuffre in the early ’60s, in a trio with Paul Bley, (former husband of Carla Bley). That trio work, a blend of West Coast Cool and what Giuffre called “blues-based folk jazz”, though undervalued at the time, turned out to be massively influential on how one strand of contemporary jazz, chamber jazz, developed. Swallow continues to be a leading exponent of this form, as is Carla Bley through her small ensemble work. Though there are only three short tracks actually composed by Bley, the whole album is imbued with her approach to composition, and Douglas, who wrote most of the tunes, works with the appropriate combination of precision, gusto and light heartedness. I bet Carla Bley enjoys both these arrangements of her tunes and the new compositions. The album is a perfect example of chamber jazz, and the completeness that can be achieved with a quartet.

The opening brief Bley tune The New National Anthem (written for vibraphonist Gary Burton, and recorded on his A Genuine Tong Funeral in 1967), is immediately followed by Douglas’ Old Country, as almost a continuation – you could imagine Bley playing this with her brass band. On it, Douglas seems fleetingly inhabited by the trumpet style of another Bley collaborator, the late Lew Soloff. This is wonderful stuff.

Douglas’s response to Bley’s angular little tune King Korn (written for the Paul Bley trio in 1963, but also recorded as a Carla Bley/Steve Swallow duet on the 1999 album Are We There Yet?), is his composition. King Conlon, (presumably a reference to Conlon Nancarrow of player piano fame) an appropriately syncopated piece, and with a melody almost in counterpoint to her original. It charges along, driven by the drums and a never-ending bass line, and appears on the CD as a longer prelude to Bley’s short original. The final Bley tune is Enormous Tots from Tropic Appetites, 1974, a very Kurt Weill-ish piece which switches between forlorn melody and staccato sections, and the quartet play superbly.

My absolute favourite track is Swallow’s composition Never Mind. It’s a leisurely waltz with an enchanting melody, so perfect you feel as if you must have heard it before, but can’t quite place it, maybe in a film? The four musicians play with such deftness and delicacy, taking turns in marking the elegant waltz rhythm, and playing with and around the tune. Four minutes and one second of dignified delight.

This CD is released on Douglas’ own label Greenleaf, and is produced by both Douglas and Chet Doxas. It is beautifully done. The sound is great. No one instrument dominates, and all are crystal clear. The drum sound in particular is exemplary. Jim Doxas is one of those rare drummers, of the Joey Baron school – endlessly inventive but always discreet. An excellent tribute to Carla Bley and a fabulous quartet all round. What will they do next?

Dave Douglas – trumpet
Chet Doxas – clarinet & saxophone
Steve Swallow – electric bass
Jim Doxas – drums

Track listing:

The New National Anthem (Bley)
Old Country (Douglas)
Never Mind (Swallow)
King Conlon (Douglas)
King Korn (Bley)
View From a Bird (C. Doxas)
Enormous Tots (Bley)
Demigods (Douglas)
Il Sentiero (Douglas)
If I Drift (Douglas)
Americano (Douglas)

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