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It’s All Here

A trio of new releases show wide variety in the Capital Region music scene

By Josh Potter



‘Stories 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.

Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble

Live at the Lark Tavern

The 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 its midst.

Charlie Phillips

Charlie Phillips

It’s 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.

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