March 29th 2011
Honey Ear Trio - Steampunk Serenade (2011 Foxhaven Records)
Honey Ear Trio's recent debut, "Steampunk Serenade" may very well wind up becoming one of the hottest jazz albums to be released this year so far, and if it doesn't..well..it honestly should. That probably comes off as a bit of a stretch considering there's not only a handful or more of really great jazz albums that have already been released with more on the way, but there's always a couple of albums that manage to permeate the deepest trenches of the brain and engulf the senses in electrifying pulses and bursts of luminous colors and textures. This is one of those albums..(at least for me it is.)
The trio consists of Erik Lawrence, Allison Miller and Rene Hart all of whom have previously played on one anothers musical projects over the years and have forged both mutual respect and friendships in the process. Erik Lawrence has played as sideman for such greats as Sonny Sharrock, Bob Dylan, Buddy Miles and currently holding membership in Levon Helm's band. Allison Miller has worked with artists such as Ani DiFranco, Natalie Merchant and Marty Ehrlichbut. Though I haven't heard any of her contributions prior to this album, I can easily claim she's become one of my favorite drummers as of late. Rounding out the group is bassist Rene Hart who not only contributes dense and occasional ominous basslines to anchor the compositions but also adds touches of electronics and loop effects. The diverse stylistic influences (ranging from rock to folk to name a couple) manage to flesh out the bodies of the compositions while the core of the material is rooted firmly in jazz. That's not to say it's traditional acoustic jazz as played out by a traditional trio, if anything the often loose and joyous playing challenges the parameters without straying away from the essence and the more hushed moments reflect the more traditional approaches with dignity and grace.
Moments like the opener "Matter Of Time" reflect the trio's understated beauty and ability to tone down and float along almost effortlessly. Lawerence's sax is both understated and mournful, Hart adds quietly plucked backings via upright bass to give a warm feeling to the cut and Miller's percussion raises above a whisper at times but never beyond that and the trio's take on "Over The Rainbow" is both haunting and gripping. Hart comes through on this one not only with his understated bass but also in the looped effects he augments the backdrop with. What sounds like a guitar played in reverse plays the familiar verse of the song while Lawrence lays out a beautify buoyant sax piece.
Balancing the more reflective numbers, the trio lay out Lisa Parrott's "Six Nettes" with gleeful conviction, the rubbery bass slinking along snake-like with a confident strut while Miller's break neck precision carrying the song forward in its almost erratic time changes into a manic pace only to bring it back down to its strut again. "Luminesque" showcases Hart's finger work at its best, his rubbery plucking adding thick tones in the background while Miller's drumming stutters, rolls and chugs along with solid precision. Saving the best for last though, "Olney 60/30" is not only a personal favorite but honestly one of the most explosive jams laid out here. Diving head on into free-jazz territory, Lawrence contorts his sax into something well beyond a musical instrument. Sharp notes burst into vibrant colors and leave their stain throughout the composition, bursting with notes that screech and wail with nearly unchecked glee and Hart not only lays down an incredibly thick and wobbly bassline to attempt to anchor the combusting piece, he's also injected bits of loops off in the distance that at times almost sound like a siren or something similar off in the distance. Over all though the piece plays out as a sort of call and response duel between Lawrence and Miller. Balancing out his sharply laid out notes, Miller cuts loose on her kit as if using every tool within reach to keep pace and even take the lead. What should be drum rolls more or less resemble tremors from beneath the surface and snare rolls take on the impression of a machine gun. The trio does manage to colease part way through the track though with Hart and Miller laying out a solid foundation for Lawrence to cut loose on and it winds up almost feeling hypnotic from how deep the groove cuts.
By balancing out the more erratic qualities with the more restrained approaches, the trio essentially captures the best of both worlds in terms of jazz and even blend touches of outside influences into the textures. And going back to my stretch..(regardless how far off I may be) I honestly feel this is essential listening for anyone even remotely interested in expanding their own parameters. Another special thanks to Matt Merewitz at Fully Altered Media. I happened to catch him dropping this groups name via Twitter one night and wrote it down and hunted them down, glad I did.
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