Monday, March 23, 2020

CD Review: Le Rex - Escape of the Fire Ants

Le Rex
Escape of the Fire Ants

Escape of the Fire Ants was released almost a year ago but the 12 tracks deserve another batch of words in their honor, in part because one particular track feels especially timely right now: "Ballad for an Optimist." It's kind of hard to be optimistic when we're cut off from each other except in virtual ways and this song understands that. For starters, it's not a ballad. It begins in a somber mood with trombonist Andreas Tschopp playing a mournful melody, first in unison with tubaist Marc Undernährer, then an octave above. After Benedikt Reising's alto saxophone steps in, the rest of the group eventually slides into a 4/4 groove that loses a beat every few bars. Then Tschopp returns for a solo over the tuba and drums, with some coloring coming from Marc Stucki's tenor saxophone. The piece's gradual shift from mournful to danceable does come across as optimistic and can offer some hope for the future.

Of course any time you listen to "Ballad For an Optimist," it's going to be good.

Le Rex hails from Switzerland though their music and musical experiences have taken them all over the place. The quintet gets a deep sound out of just two saxophones, trombone, tuba and drums. (The only member that hasn't been mentioned yet is drummer Rico Baumann.)

During some of the tracks, one of the players hits a harmony note that suddenly expands the sound into an even richer territory than they've already created. The constant shifts in "Bändumeh Landing" includes a part in which Reising and Tschopp each play half of an ostinato beneath the brass, the two horns flowing seamlessly into one another like one extended phrase.

5/4 can become a rigid time signature in the wrong hands, but in the title track, Baumann adds a syncopated accent on his high hat that feels so tight and in the pocket, it makes the whole thing swing like crazy. As the opening cut, it also serves as a strong introduction for what will come. Undernährer (who came to Pittsburgh with the Chicago Luzern Exchange, who recorded for Delmark) uses his instrument to both carry the low end and act as a fourth voice in the melodies, cutting quickly between both roles.

Throughout the album, the group's all-original set includes more choppy time signatures, Cape Town moods and a little bit of rock. When recording, they went to Studio Mecanique because it had an indie rock aesthetic more than a jazz one. They also went in to the without charts, having committed all these musical surprises to memory through performances that included many on the streets of Switzerland. The preparation made them both prepared for the music and loose enough to keep it sounding fresh.

And it still sounds fresh several months later.

PS If the Westerlies are reading this, you all should team up with Le Rex for a tour together!

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