Ratatet’s “Arctic” Unusual, Thought-Provoking Jazz

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ARCTIC / HALL: Electrick. Father’s and Sons. The Marriage of Arnolfini. Arctic. Red State, Blue State. In a Sense, Innocence. Word By Word. Basquiat. What Cy’s Eyes See. Gataxi. Returning (for Lesly)* / Ratatet: Paul Hanson, bsn/t-sax; John Grove, tbn; Dillon Vado, vibes; Greg Sankovich, org/pno/el-pno; Jeff Denson, bs/el-bs/voc; Alan Hall, dm/ldr/arr. *Special guests Paul McCandless, e-hn/oboe; Joseph Hebert, cello; Jonathan Alford, keyboard / Ridgeway Records (no number)

Ratatet sprang out of a collective trio, formed in 2014, named Electreo, which consists of of Alan Hall, Jeff Denson and Paul Hanson. In the process of writing music for Electreo, Alan’s desire to write for a larger ensemble grew, as did the band,, and thus created Ratatet. The band is unusual in that it includes a bassoon (played by Hanson) and, on this new recording, additional musicians play English horn and oboe (Paul McCandless) and cello (Joseph Hebert) on the last track (Returning [for Lesly]).

The bassoon makes an immediate impact in the opening of Electrick, which sounds to be in either 3/4 or a slow 6/8 time, at least at first. The tune hovers around F major without ever really setting up shop there, and the ambiguous melody flows seamlessly into a series of short statements by trombone, bassoon, vibes, trombone again and then back to bassoon. Drummer Hall, who wrote all of the compositions, has full command of the odd meter, playing against rather than with the beat, while Jeff Denson’s bass is felt more than heard until the last two bars.

Hall uses a slow 4 for Father’s and Sons, with 6/8 breaks. This time it is Denson up first for a solo, showing off a beautiful tone and febrile imagination. Pianist Sankovich plays with a fine sense of structure in his solo, egged on by the leader on snare and cymbals, each beat struck clearly and with great decision. One of my few disappointments of this album was that I felt the tunes were too short, although on re-examining the timings I found to my surprise that not one piece was under three and a half minutes and, in fact, most were four or longer! This just goes to show you how well Ratatet is able to fill space without bogging down the listener. The Marriage of Arnolfini starts with a drum solo; when the initial melody is played, bassist Denson sings wordlessly along with the ensemble. But this piece belongs to vibist Dillon Vado and Hanson on bassoon, whose extended solos fit hand in glove with the surrounding material and with each other. Interestingly, although the tune constructions are very modern they are primarily tonal, and thus the solos almost never stray towards outside jazz, which is appropriate.

The title tune, Arctic, creates an unusually relaxed mood using a bowed bass olo to lead into the melody played by vibes and bassoon (sequentially, not together). The trombone is used mostly for color and the piano merely sprinkles sixteenths around the proceedings. Denson is first up with a solo, again playing arco bass; his bowed tone is a little edgy in quality. Surprisingly, when Sankovich enters for his piano solo, the meter shifts (again towards triple time) and the performance begins to gain in volume as the band rides towards the finish line—but then they pull back just in time to go out as they came in, with bassoon and trombone playing with piano sprinkles around them.

Red State, Blue State has an edgy, quasi-Thelonious Monk-type beat about it, with a similarly angular melody. Here Hanson switches to tenor sax as the voicing of the opening melody provides a somewhat more conventional-sounding jazz sextet sound. They then switch to a comically stiff march beat before relaxing the rhythm and swinging more behind the soloists. In a Sense, Innocence toodles along lightly in its own unusual meter, using bassoon and vibes over the rhythm section, adding muted trombone on the break for color, but the centerpiece of this track is Sankovich’s piano solo, atmospheric and effervescent.

In Word By Word, the tremendous musical invention one heard since the start of this album suddenly becomes a bit ordinary. This is a tune without much going for it other than a quirky beat, and in fact it resembles some of the preceding material without coming up to its high level. Perhaps one thing that annoyed me about it was the funkier, more rock-like beat; when I hear rock beats, I’m heading out the door, and it doesn’t matter who is playing them. Happily, the band gets back on track with the excellent tune Basquiat, yet another tune that leans towards triple time. Here, Hanson’s bassoon solo does lean a bit towards “outside” jazz, exploring the chords with more than the usual expected route, while John Grove’s trombone is laid-back and relaxed.

What Cy’s Eyes See is another laid-back track, this one introduced by solo vibes before getting into a loosely-structured ensemble followed by solos. Gataxi is, texturally, the most unusual piece on this album, starting with what sounds like a slightly distorted electric piano sound before moving into…more rock-beat jazz. We shall mercifully draw a curtain over this track. I sure did.

The closer, Returning (for Lesly), is by far the most creative piece on the album, particularly in its rich scoring. Bowed cello is complemented by pizzicato bass, and the bassoon is complemented here by an oboe and English horn. McCandless’ solo, however, sounds written out rather than improvised; it certainly does not swing, but it doesn’t have to. The emphasis here is on impressionism rather than a full-out jazz piece. What I liked about this piece was its strong sense of construction despite another ambiguous melody; it held together very well. I was a bit disappointed, however, by the fade-out ending.

All in all, then, Arctic is a fascinating album, consistently strong in its solos and generally quite interesting (despite the few exceptions noted above) in compositional terms. Well worth a listen.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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