DR. MiNT — Voices in the Void (Orenda, 2017)
When you volunteer at a radio station, a lot of music passes through your ears. You forget a lot of it of course — but you retain a lot more than you’d think.
I remember, for instance, learning about all kinds of great Southern California musicians through the labels pfMentum and Cryptogramophone. In the Vinny Golia and Nels Cline camp, for instance, there’s bassist Steuart Liebig, who produced lots of creative stuff, from the chamber-jazz suits of Pomegranate to three CDs from his out-jazz bar band, The Mentones. (“Bar band” is my description; they rock out and even have a harmonica player.)
Liebig’s prolific nature helped him stick in memory, but others managed to stay there despite crossing my orbit only once, often because the music was good and the CD was at my fingertips in rotation for nine weeks, like a reliable friend.
That’s how the name DR. MiNT stuck in my head. It’s a catchy name, but I also really liked their CD, Visions and Nightmares (pfMentum, 2008; available on eMusic and Bandcamp). Here’s how I described it at the time:
Mix of free jazz and psych guitar in a multifaceted jam. Many tracks start off with a low-level burble of electronics, synth, and drums, a bit like experimental dance electronica. Then, the sax and trumpet come in for some free-jazz sounds often backed by a solid and ferocious drum beat. Some nutty guitar also adds a psych/fusiony kind of craziness. Great stuff with a fresh sound.
But after its time in rotation was up, DR. MiNT dropped off my radar.
Fast-forward nearly 10 years …
After being contacted by the trio Sound Etiquette, I checked out their label, Orenda — which turned out to be carrying the torch for some of the Southern California creative-jazz scene. One of the bands on their roster turned out to be Dr. MiNT — and memories of Visions and Nightmares came flooding back.
It got even better: Dr. MiNT was still active. They just dropped new album, Voices in the Void (officially released on Jan. 27), and they’re performing Sunday night, Jan. 29, as part of the Orenda third-anniversary bash, being held at Los Angeles’ Blue Whale jazz club.
Jazz horns, funk bass, psychedelic guitar, a touch of metal, occasional flashes of electronics — it’s all here on Voices, as is a new strategy that’s paying off handsomely: Unlike their older albums, this one is not fully improvised. Instead, on-the-spot improvisations were smoothed over to create compositions.
That’s basically the description of a normal free-jazz band, I know (although other artists might groom the compositions more, whereas DR. MiNT tries to preserve the suddenness of it all). But I like that they’re trying a different approach — and I like the result, which comes across sharply focused.
Much as I enjoyed Visions and Nightmares, I have to admit it drags sometimes. Long-form improvisations do benefit from quiet stretches, but it’s tricky to keep the momentum and “storyline” going while recharging. DR. MiNT didn’t fully achieve that on Visions.
Voices in the Void is tighter. “Down to One” is a healthy blast, opening with a very brief horn fanfare before letting Gavin Templeton’s free-funk sax and Alex Noice’s rock-out guitar take over.
Caleb Dolister’s snappy drum work has a lot to do with DR. MiNT’s sound. He’s the battery driving “Down to One” and the power punch behind the blasting midtempo of “Nymbists.” As that track turns jazzy, with criss-crossing horns, Dolister downshifts nicely to reset the mood while keeping the sound crisp.
“spacerobot[dance]” shows off a funky beat dolled up with a touch of EDM (garbly electronic sounds possibly generated by guitar). Templeton and trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom deliver inspired solos over Sam Minaie’s rolling, synth-like bassline.
“n-drift” is terrifically clean and bright — an ace trumpet solo gets augmented with fusion-esque guitar and sprinkles of electronics, and it’s a really nice moment when the band flows into a rolling composed segment. Below, see a live performance of this one from the Blue Whale last year.
So that’s been my re-introduction to DR. MiNT and my introduction to Orenda records. The band members are featured on plenty of other Orenda releases, so there’s a lot to explore in there.
As for pfMentum and Cryptogramophone, they’re still fighting the good fight. pfMentum founder Jeff Kaiser has left California but still releases albums at a prolific rate; the label’s latest features Bay Area electronics wizard Tim Perkis. Violinist Jeff Gauthier has slowed down with Cryptogramophone, but the label is gearing up for the March 10 release of Alex Cline’s latest, Ocean of Vows.
Hat tip: Avant Music News.