Little did this writer know that Skirl, the label whose CDs come in an oversized, 5"X8" soft-cover sleeves with designs by Karlssonwilkner, is run by saxophonist Chris Speed. The label has released several impressive albums, including Ches Smith's These Arches (see my 11/24/10 entry), Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone and drummer Ben Perowsky. Endangered Blood features the horn and compositions of the label boss in the company of drummer Jim Black (his co-hort from different projects including Tim Berne's Bloodcount), bassist Trevor Dunn (John Zorn, Mr. Bungle) and alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Oscar Noriega (Berne's new Los Totopos, Lee Konitz).
The horns-in-rhythm-section thought continues in "Rare," with Noriega's bass clarinet playing the rhythmic arpeggios of the changes in the theme. After that is established, most of the song consists of a thick low-end long tone groove by both horns, that becomes a springboard for a Speed solo which builds with the dynamics without the need to boil over into wails. His sense of economy - not to mention all the writing with the group - makes me feel like I need to keep better track of Speed's activities.
There must be something about Monk's "Epistrophy" that inspires people to play it in 7/8. Ravi Coltrane and Vijay Iyer both did it in the past couple years and Endangered Blood does it here too. This isn't a criticism though, because they take it at a slinky, Monk-like pace with Noriega again on bass clarinet. Plus it gives Black a chance stretch out and swing wildly.
It's tempting to continue going through the album track by track, as each one has plenty of things worth endorsing. But that would make this review too heavy-handed. So an overview is in order. A few songs have unison horn lineslike "Rare," but that never makes things seem pedestrian. The way Speed and Noriega play them seems like that was their plan. The riff of "Elvin Lisbon" sounds like an exercise brought to life by some great Black cracks on the snare. "K" shows they can pull of ballad approach. "Iris" could be a Tin Pan Alley melody, complete with slinky bowed bass. Finally, "Tacos at Oscar's" offers a delicious taste of freedom with Black leading the way.
Endangered Blood - which came together in 2008 as the Benefit Band, to play a benefit for a friend's cancer treatment, which probably accounts for the name - has produced one of the first albums of 2011 that deserves to be remembered on Year End lists. Hopefully I'm not alone in that belief.
But Chris, I know I've said this before but please do something about the point size of the credits.