Orfeo 5 — In the Green Castle (Discus, 2017)
Orfeo 5’s blend of jazz instruments and electronics builds on a sense of mystery, even on the tracks that display outright grooves. The results land somewhere in a far corner of improvised jazz, bordering noise, electronica, and psychedelia.
For me, some of the mystery comes from not knowing who this group is or where they came from. This was a nearly blind purchase on the Squidco site, after I’d gotten intrigued by a couple of samples. I do this sometimes, and it’s kind of a stab at reliving my youth — those days when I was just beginning to delve into free jazz (or jazz of any type) and every album was a discovery. (Orfeo 5 appears to be British, by the way.)
But the mysterious sound isn’t just in my head. Most tracks on In the Green Castle are backgrounded by a wall of electronics and samples from Shaun Blezard. He shapes the mood of most pieces, whether it’s through the orchestral waves on the title track, or a steady, crunchy beat on “In a Flower’s Radiance, Part 2,” or just the added dimension of sampled bandmates played back through distortion and echo. Other tracks feature flute rather than saxophone, creating an air of inscrutable stillness.
The title track pits a bright soloing saxophone, maybe a little too bright, over a slightly crunchy electronics loop, with some piano spatters thrown in for good measure. It’s a good piece, and I like the sax playing a lot, but sometimes it feels like it hobbles the mood, interrupting the silvery sheen created by the other instruments. I prefer the sax’s percolating sound on “And Miles Away I Saw,” where it bounces off a quiet, patient bassline (Matt Bourne on cello) for a calmly free vibe.
“Transformed by Fire” is where the band really gets their jazz on. Blezard sets down a beat that inspires some stern piano chords (Bourne again). It all builds into a midtempo jam, eventually dissolving into an unaccompanied piano passage with a deep, classical-recital jazz sound. “Fearful Beauty,” plays out like a jazz ballad, with sax leading the way over mournfully bowed cello.
Vocals and spoken word are part of the Orfeo 5 schematic as well, and they take a leading role on “A Prayer to the Sea,” where Mary Oliver, possibly with Blezard’s help, mixes children’s voices, spoken vocals, and some artistic singing and poetry.
Despite the name, Orfeo 5 apparently started out as a duo, just Blezard and saxophonist Keith Jafrate. I prefer this larger, fleshed-out version. There are still soloing moments to tickle your brain’s jazz center, but there are also passages where it’s a little difficult to tell which instrument is making which sound. Those moments create some of the album’s most intriguing heights.