TWO CALLS / HENNESSY: Red Herring. Horn Lake. Kings County Sheriff. Lagoon. Two Calls. Snag. Birds for Free. Mutterings. Why Are You So Sad, Booker Little? / Rebecca Hennessy’s FOG Brass Band: Hennessy, tpt; Tom Richards, tb; Jay Burr, tuba; Don Scott, gtr; Tania Gill, pn; Nico Dann, dm / no label or number, available as downloads from CD Baby or Bandcamp.com
Rebecca Hennessy, a trumpeter-composer from Toronto, here makes her recording debut on an album due out May 19. The promo sheet accompanying this release likens her writing to the “traditions of New Orleans party brass bands, Balkan folk music, country blues and high energy jazz-rock.” I can always live without the latter, but the album is indeed fascinating in many ways.
This is immediately evident in the opening track, Red Herring, the quirky melody and irregular beat of which resembles some of Henry Threadgill’s work. In this piece, Hennessy’s writing combines rhythmic licks with constantly shifting harmony, presenting us with an interesting “concept” piece. Without a specific set of chords to improvise on, however, only Hennessy herself really sounds comfortable in this piece. Trombonist Tom Richards, who comes up first, plays well but somewhat tentatively as he feels his way through the piece. I didn’t care for Don Scott’s distorted electric guitar solo, however, which reminded me of an old Frank Zappa joke: “How are the amps?” “Just fine, man. The distortion and feedback blend perfectly.”
Horn Lake, on the other hand, is a mood piece, built around a sustained, floating B. Despite its basic idea, the music is not just background fluff, but a fairly substantive piece using the horns in both chordal patterns and canon figures. Hennessy has evidently studied jazz orchestration thoroughly; her sense of timbral blends is spot-on, dovetailing the sounds of the instruments into the overall texture of the composition. The band falls away to allow pianist Tania Gill to play a moody solo, followed by what sounds like Hennessy playing in the trumpet’s lower range, to beautiful effect. This is followed by a polyphonic passage for the horns, which in turn morphs into a medium-up tune with a quasi-Latin beat, albeit in irrgular rhythm (it sounds like 5/4 to me, but I could be wrong). This is primarily a through-composed piece, and a very fine one at that. Based on this track alone, I foresee a very good future for Hennessy as a jazz writer.
Interestingly, the band just sort of morphs into Kings County Sheriff, another broken-rhythm piece but this time one with klezmer-sounding harmonies. This time, Scott’s guitar solo displayed more jazz and less rock, which was just fine by me, though towards the end he got carried away. Hennessy’s trumpet solo is again pitched mostly in the low range, and quite effective at that, while Nico Dann plays a marvelously creative if understated drum solo. The tempo doubles when he’s finished for the quick coda.
Lagoon is another slow piece but not a ballad, starting out with a nice syncopated tuba figure by Jay Burr. The melody line soon shifts into something that sounds skewered, as if the band were drunk while playing it. Hennessy’s solo again makes “the crooked straight and the rough places plain,” so to speak, and for once Scott pushes his blues-rock proclivities into the background, playing a slide guitar solo with some humorous references. Burr, too, has a fine solo, also tongue-in-cheek in places. Two Calls begins with bird calls before the piano, guitar and tuba play an opening lick, leading to Burr playing a jump tune in bitonal harmony. This, however, turns out to be the underlying ground bass and not the melody proper, which is played by the trumpet, trombone and guitar, a quixotic series of broken figures. When Richards enters with his trombone solo, it almost sounds as if that is the melody of the piece.
Snag is a jazz-fusion kind of piece, but one with a catchy melody and, for once, a regular beat that is relatively easy to follow. It almost sounds like the kind of piece that the Dirty Dozen Brass Band would have played…possibly her inspiration. Richards plays one of his best solos on this one, really creating a nice improvised composition, and he in turn is followed by Gill on what sounds like a tack piano. Birds for Free has a beat that sounds like Caribbean music, only mixed in with a jazz rhythm here and there. Oddly, I even heard what sounded to me a bit like Hawaiian music…Don Ho meets Harry Belafonte? Something like that! (The late jazz pianist Bobby Enriquez once told me of the years he spent in Don Ho’s band: “I tell you, I hear Tiny Bubbles in my sleep!”) Eventually the music becomes more skewed, as if the band had lost its way rhythmically, with Gill’s piano solo trying to pull things back together.
Mutterings is another slow piece and yet another mood. This one is less reflective, sounding a bit like Mingus’ Peggy’s Blue Skylight, and is also more of an ensemble composition with solo fills. Eventually, a 3-against-4 rhythm is set up with the piano bass line playing three to a bar while the ensemble plays in 4. This is another of Hennessy’s finer pieces. The set ends with a tribute to the late jazz trumpeter Booker Little, who died unexpectedly of uremia at age 23. I understood the slow, tragic feeling of the piece, but in a way it was counter to the ebullient, uptempo music that had made Little famous. Nonetheless, it’s a fine composition in its own right, although kind of a sad way to end this interesting album.
Two Calls is one of the most auspicious debut jazz albums I’ve heard in a long time, and surely points to a good future for Rebecca Hennessy.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley