CROFTS: Zaza. Novembre. Carousel. Our Secret Room. La Goulue.* Portokali. Eastern Road Trip. William’s Southern Lullaby. The Fox’ Strut. Baby Bossa / Marc Crofts, vln; Raïlo Helmstetter, el-gtr; Blaise Hommage, bs/el-bs; *Marcel Loeffler, acc / self-produced CD
This is the first release by Nomadim, a trio founded by violinist Marc Crofts who has also led the Balkan-music-based band Gilgul. As Crofts states in the liner notes, “all of the compositions on this disc have a backhistory.” Some of them are simple, such as Carousel (“A spinning reverie gone wild!”) and Our Secret Room (“For Priscilla”) while others have a pretty complex story, such as Zaza (“An old man who drove a car in Georgia. This song is also a tribute to gypsy music.”) and Portokali (“All about my mixed origins, and specifically the Jewish side. The music is inspired by a region where north and south meet (Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia). The word Portokali meaning orange speaks about migration, because it is found in many ‘oriental’ languages.”)
The band is a good one, but if one approaches this CD seeking a steady stream of gypsy-based jazz one will be disappointed. Novembre, for instance, opens with a long, elegiac guitar solo by Helmstetter, and when the violin and bass enter the tempo becomes even slower before moving into a sort of sad waltz. I would also say that, except for the spot solos, most of this music is through-composed. The harmonies used are tonal but often shift chromatically within phrases.
Without drums, the trio also interacts with one another in intimate ways. In Novembre, this extends to an acoustic bass solo by Hommage to which Helmstetter adds little chordal commentary as the tempo picks up and things get rather busy before Crofts returns for a gypsy-jazz-influenced solo of his own. (Although Django Reinhardt also played the violin, and fairly well, the tradition of “gypsy” jazz violin really stems from French musician Stéphane Grappelli, Django’s amanuensis, off and on, for 17 years.)
In essence, then, this album is more reflective than outgoing, but Crofts’ interesting compositions, with their multiple themes deftly woven into each other, hold your interest as you move from track to track. It’s also interesting that he uses as many 3/4 tempi as 4/4; Carousel is also a 3/4 piece, opening in a relaxed manner but quickly upping the pace. Is this really 3/4 or 6/8? You decide, but the melodic line in this one very strongly suggested a tune heard along a French boulevard to me—except for the swirling figures played by Crofts, followed by a strange, slower stop-and-go section which later leads into a very fast 4. I must say that I really appreciated the fact that, although Helmstetter plays electric guitar, he plays it in a jazz style and not a rock style. Bravo!
Perhaps Our Secret Room sums up Noomadim’s style as well or better than any track on the disc. It starts out with a strange, sad melody played by the guitar. The bass plucks its way along behind it while the violin plays sustained chords that sound, oddly enough, like an accordion. This one is in 4, but with an underlying 3 “feel” emphasized by the bass. On La Goulue the trio really does use an accordion player, Marcel Loeffler, and this little waltz really evokes feelings of Paris. But Loeffler isn’t just here to add color; he, too, takes a jazz solo, and if it sounds a little less like jazz and a bit more like written improvisation, it still fits in well. Helmstetter, on the other hand, is really improvising in a jazz manner in his solo, and an excellent one it is, too. Yet it is the leader who really takes chances in his solo, almost turning out what can be termed a “jazz cadenza.”
The aforementioned Portokali is given a sort of fast bolero beat by the guitarist, but swings when the violinist enters—yet again, in a sort of 3/4 or 6/8 manner. Towards the end, it almost sounds like 3 over 4. They certainly have fun with it! Then what to my wondering ears should appear but a bit of jazz funk in their Eastern Road Trip, which Crofts simply describes as “Different stages of my travels in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania etc.” William’s Southern Lullaby, written for Crofts’ then-unborn nephew during a sleepless summer night, starts out almost as a pleasant slow pop tune but, once again, morphs into something different via his composition skills as well as the fine electric bass solo (on this track) by Hommage.
This is a surprisingly excellent disc, the kind of music you can’t get enough of on a damp, cold, wet day such as I am currently experiencing here in Ohio. It’s very well written and conceived and, though none of the music is really deep or highly challenging, it stimulates the mind as it pleases the senses. Well worth checking out!
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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