Wednesday, January 30, 2013

CD Review: Ben Holmes Quartet - Anvil of the Lord

Ben Holmes Quartet
Anvil of the Lord

You never know when you're going to cross paths with random musicians who, years later, will be seen in a completely different light than the first experience. Several years ago, the back room of my neighborhood bar/live venue Gooski's was stuffed probably way past the fire code with all manner of people interested in checking out the good time that would be laid down by Slavic Soul Party! (Despite the excessive cigarette smoke,  still legal in some places in the Keystone State, the group did not disappoint.) Everyone in that band probably had at least one other musical venture besides SSP!, but the frenzy of the evening made it hard to find out anyone's individual story.

It's hard to say if Ben Holmes was part of the trumpet section that night, but it's pretty likely. Holmes has an ongoing interest in Balkan music as well as modern jazz, and has played with a great number of bands and projects that feature both styles. Anvil of the Lord - a title that gets more amusing the more you think of it as the counterpoint to Led Zeppelin's classic biography Hammer of the Gods - cites Holmes' Eastern European influences, but this isn't simply good time party music with some improv in it. These nine originals are fairly straight forward (at least for an album on Skirl) tunes with subtle harmonic movement that comes with deeper listening.

The quartet's instrumentation gives it a unique sound. The rhythm section of Matt Pavolka (bass) and Vinnie Sperrazza (drums) back up Holmes and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, the end result being both a little spare  and keeping the focus on the horns. Pavolka and Sperrazza don't play with flash but their steadiness adds some fire to "Doodle for Rhapsody," the opening salvo which grooves in a syncopated, uneven meter. Nearly all the songs have specific inspirations and this one takes a cue from a Romanian singer Gabi Lunca, which can be felt in the harmonies of the brass.

At other times the muse isn't too obvious, like "Nada v. Armitage," a fairly calm homage to a fight scene in the film They Live between those two characters, portrayed by Roddy Piper and Keith David respectively. "Malach Hamovi" (Hebrew for "Angel of Death") has a noirish feel with slinky bass behind a plaintive, melancholy line. Holmes wrote this in response to Chopin's Prelude No. 2, which is know as the "Presentiment of Death." If Chopin hung out in Downtown New York, maybe it would have sounded like this as well.

Sometimes a Miles Davis vibe creeps slowly into the music. With "Song for Creel Thompson," the melody starts off sounding a little like "Nefertiti" but moves on to greater development as well as solos with some quick double-time licks from Hasselbring and great intervals from Holmes. The more pensive "Moved Like a Fog" contains some of that vibrato-less honesty that recalls the Prince of Darkness.

If any criticism can be made of Anvil of the God it would be that Holmes and the crew almost sound too relaxed, and nice without a lot of bite initially. They clearly all know the nuances of Holmes' writing but some push and pull could have given it a little more edge. Still, it's a fine set of work from a guy who can  get a room of hipsters dancing or get a bunch of modern beatniks to lean in close and listen.