Sunday, April 29, 2012

CD Review: Jessica Lurie Ensemble - Megaphone Heart

Jessica Lurie Ensemble
Megaphone Heart
(Zipa! Music)

Jessica Lurie's name showed up on my radar in the mid '90s when she played in the Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet. Named for a band leader whose true gender was only discovered upon death (she has lived most of her live as a man, which allowed her to lead bands at that time when it was virtually impossible to be a female band leader) the group that honored her played pieces that spanned danceable ethnic styles to freer pieces and tone poems. Lurie, who plays alto, tenor and baritone saxophones as well as flute, continues in a newer version of that group now known simply as the Tiptons Saxophone Quartet, and has performed with everyone from Bill Frisell to Chuck D and the Indigo Girls.

Still, it was surprise to hear vocals taking the focus on the opening songs of Megaphone Heart. Not that she's a slack in the pipes department, but with all those horns listed next to her name in the credits, one might think this is going to be more of a saxophone album.

Lurie has a bit of the singer-songwriter bug in her too, and it keeps the expectations surprised as she makes her way through the album. Brandon Seabrook adds his guitar and banjo to the music, offering necessary roughness when needed or adding some frenetic banjo strums that bridge the gap between traditional Eastern European colors and modern skronk. Keyboardist Erik Deutsch plays electric and acoustic pianos and organ, the latter making a delightfully weird partner with Seabrook in the Balkan-flavored "Boot Heels," where cheesy organ and distorted axe trade licks. Bassist Todd Sickafoose (who also co-produces) and drummer Allison Miller round the group in a tight manner, and cellist Marika Hughes adds extra depth on three tracks.

The opening sequence of the 58-second "Steady Drum" into the full-blown "A Million Pieces All in One" bears a sound that makes the group sound like they could back up Tom Waits on a current tour. Lurie's sings without any rasp, of course, but her mid-range voice has a striking quality here, especially when it's punctuated by the horns. The pensive title track has more ethereal power too, capturing the longing expressed in the lyrics, and the musicians build to an extended, noisy coda that's worth every second.

The whole disc alternates vocal tracks and instrumentals. Some of the former don't quite measure up to the above entries. The bluesy "Maps" and the meditative "Once" are fine songs although they rely a little much on lyrical metaphors often heard in songs dealing with relationships and changes in the landscape. Her inspirations for "Once" -  a flood in Iowa and memories of how Lurie's parents planted corn in their Seattle yard to block out their neighbors - sounds more interesting than the song, which gets marred a little further by some Joni-esque trills toward the end.

Although she plays three saxes, Lurie's alto seems to be her main instrument, taking leads while the others embellish more. Her tone is strong and diverse, crisp and direct in some places, gruff and growling in others. She and Hughes create a strong texture in "Zasto" and the leader gets some good time to stretch out in the jaunty "Bells."

Megaphone Heart comes across as one of those albums that doesn't fit comfortably into one style. It's the kind of album that, for better or worse, some scribes will celebrate because it's "a little bit jazz, a little bit songwriter, a little bit Eastern European," etc. CBS Sunday Morning could have a field day with her. [That's not a criticism either, people. I'm giving you ideas.]

Unlike some albums that dabble in varieties like that - and despite what I said about a couple of the songs - Lurie can pull off all those styles without seeming like a dilettante. So much so that when on the second listen to the album, it made me think how challenging it can be to promote an album like this effectively.

Then I thought if Lurie really bothered herself with issues like that, she might never make this album. Better to encourage her to do her thing and hope the people with open ears will find it.

No comments: