Rudder, “Matorning” (18/9, Ruddermusic.com)
Most everyone knows jazz should not be immediately likable. Everyone but Rudder, that is. Anyway, is this jazz, is it funk, is it a massive slam dunk? The New York quartet clobber ya sans dictionary on their second album, and stroll off with a pitiless grin.
Got a big, brutish low end -- good thing, cuz you would not want drummer Keith Carlock’s steel-toed boot to go a-wasting, nor Tim Lefebvre’s feverishly pulsing bass. Saxist Chris Cheek and keyboardist Henry Hey are far sneakier, mixing up Average White Band riffs, stinky smears, soul-man pecks and goony ring modulations so you sometimes can’t tell which is which -- noise toys are the Great Obfuscators.
The beginning and end of “Matorning” feel best. I dare you to sit still during the echodelic upbeat slap of the opener, “3H Club,” which should tide you over if you’re between Medeski Martin & Wood albums. “Tokyo Chicken” follows suit with electronic New Orleans oompah. And “Lucy” manages to be heavy, groovy and reallyreally pretty at the same time, as Cheek blows a cycling movie melody that’s made to last.
Much of the rest enjoys the thrill of intermusical collision. “Lucky Beard” follows Carlock’s restless polyrhythmic groove into a bluesy bump before breaking open, just for the hell of it, into lawdy praisetime for the fade. “CDL” drives insistently as if you’re closing off a tough Friday, then you leave the office early, hit the bar and cruise into what you know is gonna be a three-day weekend, maybe four. Sealed with a schiz.
Rudder are up for the down stroke, in for the outfolk -- fine musicians ready to show that partying is a great American tradition. And no tie is required.
Read my LA Times live review of Rudder from a year ago here.
See, this record’s twisted expostulations on Cotton Club-era Ellington represent an anguished New Depression commentary, reflecting the return of a giddy escapism that masks the effects of economic devastation and societal collapse. Haw! No kidding, I really imagine stuff like that sometimes.
As for trumpeter Steven Bernstein and pals, they’re probably just having fun with music they like, same as always. Bernstein and saxist Briggan Krauss wail really hard, in tandem and separately, as they jerk from “Black and Tan Fantasy” to soul rave-up to blue moodiness, buffering the transitions with the help of drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Tony Scherr via improvisational dust-ups they call “Mob Rule.”
And the Swiss audience eats it up! Me, I’m a little less hungry for the severe shifts in dynamics, which sometimes result in saggy-sailed doldrums, and for this kind of referentialism, which comes off as simultaneously pimpish and ironic, without the kind of openhearted embrace/revision demonstrated by, say, the Bad Plus. Or elsewhere by Bernstein himself, who rings so holistically right with his Hebrew-slanted solo projects themed on blues or film music.
Movie pop, in fact, consumes most of the performance’s tail end: a raging “Goldfinger” and an “El Cid” take on “You Only Live Twice,” drawn from Sex Mob’s 2001 James Bond tribute. And it’s pretty entertaining. Listeners thirsting for guest keyboardist John Medeski may be disappointed, as he’s not fully integrated and takes on an untypical supporting role. Fans of timpanis, though, will be glad that Wollesen got a chance to bang ‘em.