Those Darn Cowboys & Frenchmen are “Bluer Than You Think”!


BLUER THAN YOU THINK / BRODER: Wayfarer. Companion Plan. Uncommon Sense. HELM: Beasts. Lilies Beneath the Bridge. Bluer Than You Think. C&F Jam. MISCH-BLOXDORF: Clear Head / Cowboys & Frenchmen: Ethan Helm, a-sax/s-sax; Owen Broder, a-sax/bar-sax; Chris Ziemba, pn; Ethan O’Reilly, bs; Matt Honor, dm / Outside in Music (no number)

This disc, slated for release on October 13, is the second by a quintet that calls themselves “Cowboys & Frenchmen.” Since I don’t see any French names in the band and am not sure which ones are cowboys, I’ll have to assume that this is a tongue-in-cheek name.

One thing is for sure: this band is eclectic in a good way. The opening track, Wayfarer, sounded for all the world to me like something Rabih Abou-Khalil would have written, a slow, mesmerizing, Middle Eastern-type piece that begins with the bass playing a sustained low F which signals the band to vacillate between the major and minor around that note. The music is slow and moody, with Matt Honor playing a decidedly Eastern-style drum beat while Chris Ziemba weaves a slow, Arabic-sounding piano line around it. When the two saxes enter, playing in harmony, it is to introduce an entirely new theme, and wonder of wonders, an attractive and memorable one, followed by a truly lovely solo by Owen Broder on baritone sax that intensifies in later choruses, followed in turn by Etham Helm playing a very gutsy alto. It’s the kind of piece that’s so good, and so attractive, that you wish it would go on for 15 minutes, but alas we only get eight.

Helm’s original piece Beasts follows, immediately on the heels of Wayfarer, a strange piece built around a repetitive series of rhythmic triplets played by the two horns, often with the bass grumbling down below, before breaking up into a series of continually-evolving eighth-note patterns that just barely fit into the odd, irregular rhythm beat out by Matt Honor on drums. This strangely interlocking melodic line dominates the proceedings, the only real improvisation being a splashy overlay by pianist Ziemba. This is the kind of piece I live to hear, a truly interesting and original piece using classical principles in a jazz setting. Wunderbar! At 6:30 in the piece the music morphs and changes yet again, then returns to the repetitive string of eighths, which the promo sheet describes as being like the DNA of “an otherworldly creature.”

Broder’s Companion Plan is up next, and finally the spell set up by the first two pieces is broken somewhat by the the slightly funky “Pink Panther”-type beat and the rhythmic lick played by the composer on baritone. Little circular licks played by the two saxes come and go, adding spice and interest to the evolving musical pattern. A great, almost Bossa-Nova-type solo ensues from one of the alto saxists (unidentified in the album art, and since both Helm and Broder play alto it’s hard to say), followed by both altos playing together, then by Broder again on baritone. By now the rhythm has loosened a bit from its opening funk style to, once again, convey overtones of Eastern music (though not as strongly as in Wayfarer). Interestingly, when Ziemba enters on piano, he completely changes the beat to something a bit more complex but also more relaxed, coasting above the rest of the band as the music ends quietly.

Lilies Beneath the Bridge is a ballad, with the two saxists playing a portamento-filled melodic line like something Charles Mingus would have written. (What’s nice about this is that it channels Mingus without being an outright imitation, something I think the crusty old curmudgeon would have actually liked.) Here, Ziemba’s piano solo almost sounds the way Bill Evans did when he played with Mingus (see: East Coasting), filling space beautifully while still maintaining his own identity.

Next up is Clear Head, the only piece on the album written by an outside source, Chris Misch-Bloxdorf. It’s more of a conventional modern-jazz-group sort of piece in outline, but Cowboys & Frenchmen take it apart and put it back together again in a fascinating manner, stressing the music’s underlying structure via repeated and contrasting rhythmic licks. The title tune, Bluer Than You Think, starts out in a Blue Note sort of groove, including a nice chorus by the two altos and a surprisingly “chunky” chorded solo by Ziemba. There’s another really great, gutsy alto solo, again uncredited, but my guess is that it’s Helm because Broder comes in under him at one point on baritone sax, and the later alto solo sounds more like Broder. But I may be wrong. A rare drum solo from Honor follows, with interspersed piano chords, then the out-chorus.

The promo notes indicate that C & F Jam was “inspired by the dueling car stereos on the streets of NYC.” Flutter-tongue alto over sprinkled piano starts it, following which we hear both altoists going against each other in fast-moving counterpoint, with Broder moving to baritone. Call me crazy, but some of this music sounded like Raymond Scott overlaid onto bop (something the iconoclastic Scott would have abhorred)! If this was indeed inspired by dueling car stereos in New York, the denizens of that city must be listening to something other than hip-hop and rock because this music is clearly more complex and far more technically involved! An equally wacky but inventive solo from Ziemba follows against the reverse-rhythm backbeats of Honor, then the ensemble returns to push the music further through a tube into Wonderland. Wild stuff.

The album concludes with Uncommon Sense, a brilliant piece that sounds at the outset almost more classical than jazz—at least, until the two altos, playing in unison, enter to create a flowing line that rides above the fray. The horns drop out to allow bassist O’Reilly to take a solo, with piano and cymbal splashes in the background, following which Ziemba meanders around the keyboard a bit. This is a surprisingly quiet piece for this quintet, although typical in its rhythmic and structural complexity.

The musical descriptions above are my own individual reaction to what I heard, and may not necessarily be yours. Music is the most difficult art to translate into words because it “speaks” its own language and that language is a very complex mathematical system that somehow becomes fluid rather than solid. Nonetheless, there is no question but that Cowboys & Frenchmen is an outstanding group of musical creators, and I certainly look forward to their future endeavors!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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