Saturday, January 02, 2010

CD Review: Aram Shelton's Fast Citizens

Aram Shelton's Fast Citizens
Two Cities

On one hand, the Fast Citizens operate under a crazy premise, but in terms of name exposure it's a great idea: whomever contributes the most compositions to an album receives credit as the leader. On their 2006 debut it was tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson. This time, alto saxophonist/clarinetist Aram Shelton gets a chance. Along with Jackson (who doubles on bass clarinet), the group includes Josh Berman (cornet), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Anton Hatwich (bass) and Frank Rosaly (drums). All of them have played in various aggregations (on October 27, I posted a review of Berman's excellent Old Idea which includes a few of these guys) and the rapport comes across. Shelton's writing operates in territory that feels familiar but it's never derivative. And just when he seems set on one thing, the music takes an original, unexpected turn.

This happens early, in the title track which opens the album. "Twin Cities" refers to Oakland, California and Chicago, Shelton's current and former homes, respectively. After stating the brief, bright melody, Shelton embarks on a free solo full of clipped phrases and fast tonguing which comes to a boil when he climaxes in high shrieks. If the set-up feels familiar (like a younger cousin of Tim Berne circa Fractured Fairy Tales), what follows doesn't. A tranquil non sequitur of an interlude gives Jackson an opening line for a solo that moves to the next city. He's gruff and meaty but keeps his feet on the ground during an equally convincing solo. Berman takes the final solo, with only Rosaly's rolls and splashes backing him. The quick changes in structure sound striking enough, but each soloist plays with fire, which adds to the mood.

"Big News" is marked by interesting contrasts in Shelton's influences. Again his alto solo gets unhinged, but Rosaly's drum solo feels like it skates back and forth between between straight swing and free meter. This, as well as the bass and cello's deft ability to dance around the soloists, makes for a compelling listen.

The Citizens don't slow down throughout the album and they explore different styles with nearly every track. In Lonberg-Holm's "VRC#9" the horns play a rigid arpeggio while the rhythm section changes the tempo and the center of the melodic phrase. Right as the repetition is about to burrow under your skin, dead silence drops in, followed by a series of musical splats. It might be unnerving but that's good. Besides it keeps you listening.

Hatwich contributes "Wontkins" a piece that says a lot about the band in the shortest amount of time - 1:19. The fast theme sounds a lot like an early Ornette Coleman tune (a little like both "Little Symphony" and "The Invisible"), and the statements lead to contained moments of free blowing where everyone interjects clearly instead of competing for space. Things seems to be headed towards chaos when the piece suddenly cuts off. Whether the tape ran out or the bassist wrote it that way, this sneaky trick sounds just as fun as what could have happened.

Other fine moments occur between those already mentioned: Both saxophonists deepen the sound of the frontline when they switch to their respective clarinets, and the group plays a ballad marked by dissonant harmonies ("I Am Here, You Are There") and the strings throw in another duet that helps change the scene between soloists ("In Cycles").

Shelton might not live in Chicago these days, but he's really still part of the scene that gave birth to Fast Citizens. It seems like these guys are unstoppable (on the heels of this album there is a new disc by vibist Jason Adasiewicz that includes three Citizens on it), and there's no reason for them to slow down anyway.

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