Bristle & New Monsters, Part 1

A couple of interesting new jazz groups have albums out and will be playing at El Valenciano (San Francisco) Thursday night, April 19.

They’re called Bristle and New Monsters (that’s two separate things: Bristle, and then, set apart by this long string of words, New Monsters), and they’re both helmed by musicians who were part of the Bay Area jazz scene a generation ago, figuratively speaking.

Let’s start with Bristle, a band that saxophonist Randy McKean has been kicking around for more than a year now, as he’s chronicled on his blog.

BristleBulletproof (Edgetone, 2012)

This is a drummerless quartet that combines some swingy jazz writing with more modern ideas and a free-jazz approach to solos. McKean leads the group, playing saxophone alongside Cory Wright. Lisa Mezzacappa, who’s played with Wright frequently, is on bass. Murray Campbell is the band’s secret weapon, as he plays violin or oboe — either way, it’s an unexpected sound injected into the mix.

The combination of styles comes up immediately in “Notlob,” which starts out friendly and swingy but then revels in the antics of modern classical music: sudden stop/start moments and the occasional raspy blare from a sax. It turns out the structure is all mapped out; Randy McKean wrote up an enlightening explanation on his blog.

“Settlin’inin'” likewise has a friendly trad-jazz swing to it — as does “Revolution,” a Lemuel Crook composition (think 1960s jazz). “Revolution” plays like a combination of a war anthem and a Bing Crosby/Bob Hope movie theme, then gets into a cool little sax/bass phase, light-footed and quick. That’s followed by a tangled group free-for-all.

“Boxcar Bob” has more of the feel of upbeat chamber music. It works on low-key principles with lots of freedom of melody, providing the basis for a nice oboe intro and a bass clarinet solo from Cory Wright. “Drizzle” really does evoke the peaceful feeling of watching things fall from the sky (I was thinking snowflakes more than rain, but rain works), then gets into one of the most intriguing improvisations on the record, backed by  pulsing bass.

Way over on the serious side of the spectrum is “Attica,” a slow piece made of spare, downcast phrases. The soloing space is quiet, nearly blank. There’s an overall stillness, and when the violin or bass starts up with fast playing, it’s like a lone insect scrabbling across the desolate waste. It’s a good song, and effective. Just don’t play it at parties.

Fun and thought-provoking stuff overall. Here’s a look at “Notlob” being performed at Actual Cafe in Oakland.

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