– “Alternate Side”

Alternate Side, New Tricks second and latest release was recorded over two sessions, which seems not only economical but damn near impossible considering how tight the quartet sounds together. But then again it’s jazz, so how can you tell, right? I’m reminded of something one of my music teachers told me long ago pertaining to jazz. He told me that when playing jazz, if you hit a wrong note, just play it again so that way people will think you meant to do it.

A stripped down, streamlined outfit; New Tricks provide a balanced auditory diet with each of the essential sound groups represented: percussion, rhythm, and two servings of melody (or in some cases, one heaping helping of harmony, which counts double). The ‘less-is-more’ approach seems to pay off for Mike Lee, Ted Chubb, Kellen Harrison and Shawn Baltazor who feel that lacking a polyphonic voice such as a piano or guitar allows them greater freedom for experimentation and improvisation. It may have worked. These tracks seem less like songs and more like organisms, trying to express themselves in a language we can’t understand.

When listening to jazz the mind tends to wander, so it can be difficult to accurately characterize. The influences of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane are immediately heard coming from the horns. Beyond that, it’s up to the listener to decide for themselves. As far as ensembles go, New Tricks could definitely be described as minimalist, their sound is more intimate and personal than their big band counterparts, and listening to Alternate Side gives the feeling that these performers would be right at home in some smoky, subterranean rathskeller rather than some large auditorium or concert hall. “Long Road Home” practically begs to be heard this way. Just barely the longest track, this marks the approximate segue from the horn dominant first half of the record to the second half, where they rhythm section steps into the spotlight. By and large these are lighthearted, playful tracks. “Optimistic Lee” is a fine example. There are no mournful horns or sorry strings, nothing dark or dreary about the compositions. And best of all, no pretentious jazz vocals to undermine the band. All too often there is one thing that can ruin a perfectly good jazz tune: singing.

The listener’s opinion of Alternate Side will be almost directly proportional to their enjoyment of jazz itself, and if by a fluke you’ve never heard jazz before, then New Tricks may be a good group to break into the genre with. It’s not too heady and cerebral, but it’s also not like you’re listening to remedial jazz for dummies. There’s some complex stuff in here, but that’s not the point. It’s not a showcase of pedantry; it’s just four fellows jamming on some jazz.

An interesting note: on the website the band lists among its members “visual artist” Rob Henke who, in addition to providing art for the albums and website, has produced a small series of wry, existential cartoons (available on his own website, which are both ironic and amusing as well as thought provoking and speculative. This type of multimedia collaboration is refreshing to see among artists today. Most acts today focus on the product, so it’s nice to see a group whose attention to detail and personal aesthetics are evident in the packaging as well as in the product.

Key Tracks- Optimistic lee, Back to Work, Long Road Home
Drew Vreeland- Staff

May 12, 2011


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