trio of new releases show wide variety in the Capital Region
I’m telling to my friends” arrives as a fitting opening refrain
to the self-titled debut album by Troy folk-rock band Restys.
It also serves as a type of headline for everything that follows:
seven brief yet filling tracks of stories and sketches stretched
over a jangly zydeco shuffle. Throughout, there’s an old-timey
family-band quality in the album’s delivery, ragged, honest
and inviting as the opening lyric.
What immediately sets Restys apart from others of their ilk
is the peculiar sense of motion generated by ad hoc instrumentation.
Molly Comstock’s fiddle and Maura Bress’ accordion-mandolin
blend with simple drumming on songs like “Two Man Saw” for
a Creole sensibility that never quite connotes gator-skin
boots but does “promenade,” as they sing on “The Weather.”
On the sinister, electric-guitar-led “Damn Oil,” these adornments
smart of Dylan’s “Hurricane,” and Ira Marcks’ voice digs for
the Southern Gothic. There’s a meandering sort of happy nonchalance
in the way many of the songs are built around Marcks’ plunking
banjo, but this humble ease is equally communicated through
deft vocal arrangements and a production detailing that allows
harmonies to hover in the mix. This is best displayed in the
album’s closing minute, when choirlike harmonies repeat “Oh
my joy” to resolve the holy-roller gospel of “Cold Room.”
Listen once to the album’s centerpiece, “A Name for Everything,”
and you’ll find yourself singing the calling-card hook, “You
spilled paint in my driveway,” but even after further listening
you’ll have trouble pinning the lyric to any narrative context.
Herein lies a confounding quality of the band’s songwriting
that belies their simple spirit. Like the “etchings” referenced
in the song’s opening verse, narrative often gives way to
vignetted lyrics and whimsical non sequiturs. The rest of
the song may well be a list of objects viewed through a hang-drying
sheet—a tire iron, Cadillac, fire hydrant—but by the time
the hook comes around, it doesn’t seem to matter. Whatever
it means, it sure is fun to sing, and promises to sound better
the more voices are included.
Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble
at the Lark Tavern
history of big-band jazz is spangled with great live records,
and for this there are a couple of reasons. First, it’s no
simple logistical feat to organize a band of the size saxophonist
Keith Pray assembles one Tuesday every month at Tess’ Lark
Tavern. Scheduling studio time on top of the gigs, rehearsals
and solo engagements Pray’s 18 musicians maintain is virtually
out of the question. Instead, for Pray, it must have seemed
easier to cram a forest of microphones, mixing boards and
laptops into Tess’ dining room (where the players already
spill off the stage to fill), as this was his approach last
summer to recording his big band’s debut CD.
Beyond logistics, though, there’s a more innate reason why
big bands lend themselves to great live records. As the Big
Soul Ensemble’s loyal crowd can attest, there’s something
that happens to the room when the band settle in and starts
to get loose. Soloists playfully challenge one another, audience
members hoot encouragement, the volume swells into the front
bar, and a spirit of camaraderie drives the band into some
of its most inspired playing.
The opening of Pray’s loping blues “Walkin’ the Dog” is representative.
Bassist Lou Smaldone walks the titular bassline out of a flurry
of room noise, and bit-by-bit the musicians fall in around
him, the brass section punctuating Pray’s and tenor sax player
Lee Russo’s solos with tight stabs and skittering falls. Having
written and arranged the bulk of the material, Pray takes
his share of solo spots, but his band clearly are a democratic
enterprise. More than half of the musicians are allowed a
chance to step forward; and pianist Yuko Kishimoto, saxophonist
Brian Patneaude, and composer John Dworkin all contribute
original material to the record.
Highlights are plentiful, but “Transconfiguration” jumps out
as one of Pray’s most forward-looking charts. Pianist Dave
Gleason sprinkles a deranged opening solo over a vamp that
might almost be called hip-hop. At first it’s spare; color
later rushes in from wonderfully cartoonish horn figures.
Dworkin’s “Renee” is more traditionally emotive, almost dark
in its pensive character. If there was any prior doubt, Pray’s
“The Other Funk” makes his penchant for greasy syncopation
apparent, and, indeed, much of the album grooves in a manner
that demands more dance floor than the band’s numbers permit.
Precision, however, has not been sacrificed here in exchange
for loose energy, and the brass fanfare toward the end of
“The Gate (A Portrait of the Mohawk)” is testament. Dylan
Canterbury’s cheek-busting trumpet solo pushes the whole thing
over the top.
More than a great record and feat of live engineering, Live
at the Lark Tavern, decorated with many live photos picturing
a sizable percentage of the region’s jazz talent, functions
also as a sort of local jazz yearbook. Any city should consider
itself fortunate to have a group like this holding court in
the craft and artistry of guys like Charlie Phillips that
makes the success of John Mayer’s overwrought sentimentality
such a travesty. But it’s not like Phillips has a chip on
his shoulder. The Albany native’s debut is rooted in the kind
of blue-eyed soul and guitar balladry that tempts comparisons
to Mayer, G. Love and Jamie Lidell, but, by virtue of its
diversity, it aspires to something more original.
A choir of self-harmonizing vocal parts introduces opener
“Dollars and Dimes” and makes immediately clear the area in
which Phillips truly excels. Throughout, his voice is clear,
clean and confident, and while his tasty guitar work colors
most songs, he opts to toy with vocal textures in the coda
of most songs rather than rip a solo. On “Evelyn,” however,
he matches the pining lyrics with fraught, howling guitar.
With the exception of pared-down tracks like “Very Well May”
with its accordion and handclaps, and the lo-fi-leaning “Cerebral
and Intuition,” Phillips’ groove-savvy band provide a fitting
vehicle for his voice. Excellent production values belie the
disc’s debut status.
Jump straight to “You Broke the Heart (That Loved You),” though,
for proof of the young dude’s soul cred. The sound is balanced
and subdued, organ oscillating and muted horns swelling to
cradle Phillips’ voice as he patiently builds to a stirring
crescendo. Makes you wonder where this guy’s been hiding out.