Saturday, March 25, 2017

CD Review: Lisa Mezzacappa - avantNOIR

Lisa Mezzacappa
(Clean Feed)

Maybe it can be attributed to a 21st-century perception of it, but the film noir genre holds a great number of charms: the stark quality of black and white cinema; the mix of characters, who are usually painted in broad strokes; the suspense that holds a story together; the ability of the characters to express a great deal in a minimum of words, a lot of it coming from facial responses. And when they talk - ooh, the sharp dialogue!

It lends itself to music, which can evoke much of the above characteristics with dry, vibrato-free vibes, honking saxophones, chunky guitars and propulsive rhythm sections. Lisa Mezzacappa immerses us in the thick of it on avantNOIR. She might live in the Bay Area, but the music would seem to depict pure and gritty Downtown Manhattan, where she grew up.

However, the eight tracks on the disc were actually inspired by novels, rather than the cinema. Further, Dashiell Hammett's 1920s crime fiction took place in San Francisco, so the images of private dicks scouring the Bowery is slightly inaccurate, at least for some of these tracks. Paul Auster's New York Trilogy also inspired the bassist's writing, although those stories were penned in the 1980s, years after the heyday of film noir. Regardless of their origins, Mezzacappa has used the source material to create the soundtrack to a film that hasn't been shot yet.

Along with her acoustic bass, Mezzacappa's gang includes Aaron Bennett (tenor saxophone), John Finkbeiner (guitar), William Winant (vibraphone, percussion, Foley sound effects), Jordan Glenn (drums) and Tim Perkis (electronics). The first four tracks are grouped together to feature characters and locations out of Hammett's work. "Fillmore Street" functions like an economical, opening salvo. It's followed by "The Ballad of Big Flora," which opens with a foreboding bass solo, evoking the notorious dame with a quality that puts Mezzacappa's instrument off in the distance, peeking out of an alley, before a stop-start mood begins.

Both of these tracks recall the equally sleazy undercurrent of the Lounge Lizards or the Jazz Passengers. Finkbeiner's guitar recalls Marc Ribot's dry attack, though his tone avoids the brittle, sawed off quality. And Mezzacappa's crew stakes out their own territory thanks to the inclusion of samples and electronics. The static in these tracks often adds a percussive quality to the music. And if you listen to "Medley on the Big Knockover" while driving, beware of the blaring car horn in the first 30 seconds. It's mixed in such a way that it sounds like it's coming right at you. Not since the opening scream in John Zorn's "Spillane" has a sound effect had such a deceptive feel.

"A Bird in the Hand" takes the connection to the source material a step further by including dialogue from The Maltese Falcon in the piece. Whether it's actually Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Greenstreet is hard to say. But the inclusion serves a purpose. "Ghosts (Black and White, then Blue)" features Winant using one of those Foley effects - a manual typewriter (he also uses a rotary phone and hotel desk bells elsewhere). Together with the tune's slow, ominous spy riff, it creates the idea of the story - and by extension, the whole album - reaching a denouement, with a detective typing up his final reports. But it gets loud five minutes in, with Finkbeiner finding room to wail once more. And things aren't over until the group gets through "Babel," which features some disembodied backwards voices reminding us that noir usually doesn't end up wrapped in pretty bows.

While the sound of other dark lounge bands recur through the album, the comparison feels more like a mark in Mezzacappa's favor, proving her skill at storytelling through music. The band seems to be having a blast too. Saxophonist Bennett often gets to lay back and set the scene but "Quinn's Serenade" gives him a chance to cut loose. Winant continually works well with him and Finkbeiner, for that incisive noirish mood. Aside from her solo in "Big Flora," Mezzacappa stays out of the spotlight most of the time, offering strong support and letting the group as a whole get noticed.

The bassist plays in a number of projects in the Bay Area, of which I've heard two: Bristle, a wild chamber group; and Cylinder, a quartet with Darren Johnston (trumpet), Aram Shelton (reeds) and Kjell Nordeson (drums), who released an excellent album on Clean Feed in 2011 and are probably disbanded since Shelton left the country. More on her vast c.v can be found at Her latest effort shows the diverse of her skills as a writer and leader, and should be investigated.

One doesn't have to be fan of old time radio shows like Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar or tv classics like Darren McGavin's portrayal of Mike Hammer. But as a fan of both, I was slayed by these cats.

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