Peggy Lee Band — New Code (Drip Audio, 2008)
If you’re reading this at all, then you know Peggy Lee refers not to the singer, but to a cellist who’s been a standout part of the Vancouver creative-jazz scene. Her band has been around for four albums now, previously as a sextet but expanded to an octet this time.
I haven’t heard the previous three albums, so I don’t know if it’s a result of the octet expansion, but: There’s a bigness to the sound, the kind of ambitious writing that’s made “cinematic” the de facto critics’ word for Pat Metheny. But Lee’s music isn’t as slick and airy as Metheny’s, in a good way; there’s a warmer, down-to-earth quality to the pretty melodies on her album, and a fresher, more raw feel to the avant-garde colorings on the edges — particularly from the two guitars in the lineup.
The album opens in inspiring fashion, with Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want To Do” bursting forth like a cinematic helicopter shot of the Great Plains at sunrise. Brassy horns play a brightly comforting melody with just a tinge of sadness. Subsequent solos — especially Brad Turner on trumpet — keep feeding that mood. And when Lee’s cello finally gets some space of its own, alongside an elegant guitar solo (either Ron Samworth or Tony Wilson), it’s a bold and beautiful stroke.
Then, like a practical joke, the track collapses completely into free noodling! Always leave ’em off balance.
As if to show off avant-garde improv cred, the second track, “Preparations,” goes for small cave noises: ghostly wisps of cello; squeaked and scraped bowing; tiny, curled guitar sounds. A slow melody comes forth, decorated by strongly toned, hard-sawed cello lines. Eventually, the horns pick up another strong, wistful theme, played slowly under an emotionally punched duet of cello and drums.
“Shifting Tide” unfolds slowly into a nice melody led by cello and trumpet in unison. Jon Bentley on sax glides through the music, sometimes stepping outside the changes for some interesting corner turns, making for a grand and colorful solo overall. “Tug” uses more soaring melody lines to set up a very nice trumpet solo.
It all closes with another soundtrack-y showcase, the Kurt Weill song, “Lost in the Stars.” It’s a soft denouement, a peaceful closing-credits goodnight.
OK, so I’m about eight months behind the curve on this one. I admit it. Just look at the stack of reviews linked from the Drip Audio site. But it really is one terrific album, and I’m really happy to have finally gotten an earful of it.