CD reviews

Kansas Smitty’s – “Things Happened Here”

Kansas Smitty’s – Things Happened Here
(Ever/K7. CD Review by Peter Jones)

There’s no one quite like Kansas Smitty’s, formerly known as Kansas Smitty’s House Band (pedantically, I find myself struggling with that redundant ’s). Anyway, the Smittys, a septet led by expat American reedsman Giacomo Smith, has often cultivated a self-consciously old-fashioned style, deeply engaged with early jazz and its accompanying fondness for the clarinet. In particular, the ghost of Duke Ellington looms large over the whole enterprise, particularly, on this album, on the plaintive and tightly-arranged Sambre et Meuse, with its varying tempi and rhythmic styles that veer from swing era to bop and back again. These variations turn the tune into a mini-suite, and a similar technique is used on the title track. But there’s a lot more going on here than retro-jazz – in places we hear Miles-like modes, blues, some bouncin’ funk and even a whiff of the Caribbean.

Kansas Smitty's Things Happened HereYou may wonder whether the band has any recognisable musical identity when they cover such a broad canvas; who cares, someone else might retort, as long as the music is great? And great it is, at least on this new album, their fourth. Smith has written and produced the whole thing, and the sheer fertility of the man’s musical imagination breathes life and – yes – coherence into the whole enterprise.

On the opening track Riders, the melodic horn figure, led off by Smith on bass clarinet, sounds like something Ellington might have written if he were still alive today. The mournful Dreamlane, which follows, suggests more Ellingtonia. However, throughout the album, guitarist Dave Archer makes no effort to sound old-school. His outstanding contribution is to add some acid into the mix on tunes like the thrilling, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Temple of Bel, with its arabic cadences, insistent heavy-metal riff and gob-smacking cascading horn figure from Smith on alto, Alec Harper on tenor and Pete Horsfall on trumpet. Archer and pianist Joe Webb interweave delicately on Alcazar, as Smith again solos on bass clarinet. And on the closing tune, the slow, rather sinister Judgement, Archer does his clanging Chicago blues thing.

The New Orleans-influenced Sunnyland, apparently a tribute to the blues pianist Sunnyland Slim, has received radio play in recent weeks, and rightly so, with its hooky harmonised horn fanfare, funkily underpinned by Archer, Ferg Ireland on bass and Will Cleasby on drums.

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At times eerie, at times magical, at all times impossible to pin down, Things Happened Here is a multifarious joy from start to finish.


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