There's good fun to be had in these microgrooves. Nothing earth-shattering, but the analogue (I have to stop using that term), of all those Joe Cuba or Oscar Peterson LPs your folks used to stack up on the changer to make sure the party, er, swung. I forget what decade that was, but no matter. The liner notes state that these lads' (Rob Cookman, keys; Lyman Medeiros (bass sometimes), Mark Ziegler (bass other times), and Jeff Moehle (percussives) music is not 'strictly Jazz.' Whenever you hear that, the lazy critics among us (not on JAZZ NOW, of course) will immediately blurt "File under Medeski, Martin & Wood. NEXT!" But anyone thinking that is just not paying attention. First, if one must have proof of major Jazz chops, one might cue up the mellifluous "Ghost Town," as elastic, tuneful and infectious a performance as anything Richard Beirach put out when he was on ECM a while back. And "Meesh," a bouncy little semi-foxtrot, plows similar tone rows. If that ain't Jazz, I'm Whitney Balliett. And I'm not. No, the 'not strictly Jazz' moniker is an attempt to wriggle out from under the Category Police who will call one band 'industrial art metal' (which is what?!) and another 'trip hop' (ditto). The idea is to admit as a first cause the concept that categories do not matter. News to some. Widen the field of possibilities by force! Yes, the music on UNDERDOG varies crazily, but not in quality: Cookman is never 'off topic,' neither bassist flubs one, or any, and Moehle... well, here's where the MMW way of doing things, if we must categorize at all, does get on my nerves a bit. Moehle, like many drummers in this genre that is not a genre, spends too much time for my taste underlining the beat on the snare, as you'd hear on a Steely Dan album. But there's a legit explanation for this: no band which leapfrogs over categories in quite the way the Butterfat Trio does has no R&B signifiers! And what does every R&B band drummer since the late '40s do? He has to tell the dancers where the beat is, so everybody doesn't get their toes crushed. Think of the lawsuits. So I'll just have to 'deal.'. "The Count" is a funkfest with hoarse-amped clavinet and fuzzy organ; I keep waiting for Sly Stone to yowl something trenchant. Since Mr. Stewart has long ago left the building, Ziegler does the honors herein with a loopy bowed recitative. It'll do dandy.
Further in Moehle's defense I point out a dignified take here of punk/grunge band Soundgarden's 1994 radio hit "Black Hole Sun" (I kid you not). Listening in on the drum tracks of this cleverly rearranged melange of blues and Beatles scraps, I have to say Moehle's rhythmic take is a lot more inventive than Soundgarden's own drummer Matt Cameron came up with for the original. Yeah, some of you may think that Soundgarden was a bunch of metalloid dunderheads, but they had a very subtle ear for structure - the way they refashioned blues phrases so they could be playing a blues structure and even I'd never know it because of the, er, 110 decibels of fuzz guitar is just one example - and nobody'll ever mistake Cameron for Elvin Jones but he can play. This take of "Black" is further enlivened by Ziegler's bass being assigned the melody - such as it is, I'll admit - and Cookman the underpinnings. Not a stunning reinvention, but the take comes off something vaguely like a bolero. Worth an ear or three.
Well, we haven't even touched on the title ditty, a walloping fusion/funk workout with swirling keys and an"I Am the Walrus" ending - marching bands appearing and disappearing out of and into the fog, passing train conductors going the way opposite to the trains they're on, gospel choruses (thankfully nobody telling us Paul is dead), et al while Moehle goes wild under cascading Wurlitzer tidal breakers. Elsewhere there's the even funkier "My Not Dink," "Big Guy" and "Chez Nous." Very nice work, guys. It's within an ace of a party on a piece of plastic.
by Kenneth Egbert