Endemic Ensemble turns ‘Lunar’ into a swanky jazz club experience
“With three first-rate composers, swinging rhythm, great tunes and purposeful playing — always in the service of the song, and usually anchored in the blues — this is one of 2012’s standout albums.” — Lucid Culture
From the first luxurious, brassy notes, Endemic Ensemble’s March 1, 2012 Pony Boy Records release — the swanky, swoon-worthy LUNAR — brings a live jazz club experience straight to the listener at home.
Formidable Northwest composer and bassist Steve Messick brought together colleagues to flesh out a new band called the Endemic Ensemble in 2010. Those assembled players (mostly from his 2002 New Bop Brigade) — co-founder, pianist David Franklin, soprano/tenor/alto saxophonist Travis Ranney, and drummer Ken French, as well as baritone saxophonist/bass clarinetist Matso Limtiaco — came together to record all original tunes with a difference in mind.
While Messick and Franklin’s New Bop Brigade concentrated on hard-driving modern jazz in the style of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Endemic Ensemble’s LUNAR is something else. Think hard-bop meets classical and big band horns, ala Art Blakey and Joe Henderson — vamped up for the new century. Of the 11 slamming tracks, six are from Messick’s genius, including the big, bold, brass band sounds of the opening “Lunar,” the curvy contemplative bass, horn rap of “Return Of The Pelicans,” the sexy spiral of “Solace,” and the floaty “A Short Walk With Many Stops.” (David Franklin and Matso Limtiaco completed the sonic picture.)
Most of the band on this recording come from sturdy big band stock — Messick’s in Orchestra Seattle, along with several others in his past, Ranney’s in the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony, Limtiaco was a resident composer with the Emerald City Jazz Orchestra, and French made it onto several big bands in the Air Force, even producing “Tower Of Inspiration” by the Shades of Blue jazz ensemble from Scott AFB in Illinois. Their big band pedigree shows all over this album.
Every song, whether it starts off humbly or with Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor, Opus 28, Number 20 (“Fred’s Folly”), is larger than life — thanks to the big brass presence of Ranney’s and Limtiaco’s sax. Yet, there’s a swanky, intimate jazz club vibe too, in the finishing touches by French on drums and Franklin on piano. Messick, as the band leader, careens deftly from big band sweep to intimate jazz club swoon.
Normally, a Northwest-made album can get swallowed up in the shuffle of the bigger, grander cities. But LUNAR received quite a bit of public and critical notice when it came out. A New York City blog, Lucid Culture, named LUNAR one of “The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2012,” describing it thusly: “With three first-rate composers, swinging rhythm, great tunes and purposeful playing — always in the service of the song, and usually anchored in the blues — this is one of 2012’s standout albums.”
Heady, and fair.
One of the most luscious songs off the album is Messick’s “Solace.” It’s seven minutes and 39 seconds of romance in elongated notes, designed to linger a little on the palate. The stars of this piece fall to piano and sax, weaving intentional, yet intuitive strings of yearning, remembrance, and fancy — like a slow caress.
“March-Bop” is very short, a minute and 36 seconds short, but goes straight to the point with the marching band hip-hop style of Ken French, taking leadership in assertive, funky strokes as the brass band behind him plays hide and seek.
Even shorter — 48 seconds — “A Short Walk With Many Stops” picks up slightly on the sensual romanticism of “Solace.” The bass shadowing piano is lovely, and haunting, leaving the listener yearning for an encore climax.
What drummer Ken French, bassist Steve Messick, and to a lesser extent, pianist David Franklin, do on Matso Limtiaco’s “Do The Math” is nothing short of astounding. The song starts off innocently enough, in soft, warm tones. Then, French kind of breaks up the pretty with a monster drum solo that is not nearly long enough. He calls to mind all sorts of fast and quick tonalities, shifting from breakneck speed to careening pace, to an other-worldly time.
While mood permeates significantly throughout LUNAR, this is not an ambient period piece, as signified more assuredly in Messick’s “Spikenard.” Time and care are taken with every elaborate solo, from the tripping bass to the freakishly phenomenal horn lines — that vary from verging on smooth to exploding in a spastic, urgent rhythm. The horns simply take over for everything, while the piano tries to keep up with its own plaintive conversation, straight ahead for a contemporary view.
David Franklin’s “More Than Anything” references the Chopin Prelude in his other piece, “Fred’s Folly,” in a complete set. Where “Fred’s Folly” hints at the classical intersection of a quite modernized straight-ahead feel, “More Than Anything” finishes off in the deliberate, satisfactory manner of a savvy Top 40 love song. Note the urban dance drum moves toward the end. Nicely played, Ken French.
Endemic Ensemble’s LUNAR manages to respect the hard-bop, big band, and classical, with an updated nod to a melodic, danceable mindset. That’s hard in jazz. This band makes it look easy.
Review first appeared in Examiner Jan. 7, 2013.