Saturday, May 04, 2013

CD Review: Thiefs

(Melanine Harmonique Recordings)

The TV on the Radio of experimental jazz? A transplant of 1968-era Soft Machine into 2013? Thiefs (they meant to spell it incorrectly) can put those thoughts in your head while listening to their debut album. At least they put them in mine.

One of the reasons TVOtR has endeared themselves to me relates to the way that they don't sound like anything else I've heard, combining all kinds of disparate musical elements together without inhibition. Thiefs have that same fearless quality. With former David S. Ware drummer Guillermo E. Brown in a band, it gives you certain expectations, which he and his triomates (saxophonist Christophe Panzani, bassist Keith Witty) turn on its ear. Brown likes to groove here, in some cases limiting himself to just snare and kick drum with a little hi-hat, and showing restraint ("The Actual Neef"). The album's opening sounds come from effects-heavy samples (all three are credited with "electronics" in addition to their instruments), to which Brown gradually adds real drums. This track, "Doute/s" is one of two cuts recorded live at New York's Jazz Gallery, without any post-performance additions.

Further, Brown sings on a few tracks, with a strong voice that does sometimes sound like TVOtR's Tunde Adebimpe, strong in delivery and giving shape to something that seems a little loose. Melodically, though he also sounds a bit like Robert Wyatt from later in his solo career. He once sang in a neo-soul/no wave group called Pegasus Warning, which explains how he's able to take a traditional delivery and toy with it.

Although Thiefs are all about setting a scene, Panzani's playing makes sure the music doesn't satisfy itself with endless riffs or loops. On tenor primarily with occasional soprano, his solos add deeper perspective to the music. Panzani occasionally runs his horn through wah-wah effects, which is where the Soft Machine comparison comes in. It recalls Mike Ratledge's keyboard sound when he used wah-wah but before he started using his signature fuzz (heard on their Volume Two album). This sound warps "Daybaby" even further, a song that combines a soul ballad, an arty melody and a lyric inspired by the impending birth of a child. Any of those elements could run the risk of flying way off track but Thieves make it work.

Bassist Keith Witty adds a significant element to the mix, sonically. While it's easy to imagine a fretless bass guitar sliding all over the music, Witty sticks to an upright, which keeps the music on organic ground whether the jazz quality of their set is in full force or a trip-hop style takes over. Speaking of which, "Sans Titre (huile sur toile)" starts off like dub, with guest accordion player Vincent Peirani, magnifying that aspect of it before the coda goes off into double-time with everyone being just a touch out of sync with one another, although they still move as a unit.

With all the talk that goes on about making jazz contemporary in order to appeal to non-jazz fans, the thing that always seems to get sacrificed first is the edge, found in melodies or in the "blowing" sections, which get reduced to something that's heard as the fade-out begins. That doesn't happen with Thieves. As a perfect example, "The World Without Us" also sounds like a smooth ballad, complete with gentle Brown vocals. But even with electric piano (from guest Shoko Nagal) underscoring a gentle scene and Panzani playing soprano, the saxophonist still fits in a provoking, somewhat biting solo. And they follow it with "TWWU (postlude)" which only lasts two minutes, but it's a dark, ominous two minutes, where Brown makes my Adebimpe comparison a little more credible. This is accessible and thought-provoking.

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