This latest outrage from one of my favorite music labels (largely because one seldom if ever knows what to expect from them, CD by CD, other than 'imaginative in the extreme') reminds me of a Broadway play I saw in 1968 by Carl Reiner named "Something Different." The former Sid Caesar/ Dick Van Dyke scriptwriter/jokesmith attempted to glue together a total screwball comedy and a parody of the avant-garde theatre of that day and make it work anyway.
Depending how hard you laughed early on and how hard you expected to ponder the meaning Of It All later, the entirety either was an Icarus-like flop or a work of genius. To this day I am not convinced which it was, but I'll tell you this. If Reiner ever revives it, I'll go see it again.
Similar feelings occupy my thoughts about the Brian Woodbury Variety Orchestra. You expect a band with a name like that to do tea dances; well, if so a lot of tea will get spilled, and think of the lawsuits.
Woodbury has assembled a whimsical (at best) amalgam of string section, collapsible horns, accordions, pedal steel guitars, hooks aplenty, banjos, descendants of the Andrews Sisters warbling about the Kennedy assassination (the first one), a Mingus declension, marimbas a la Zappa, cloud-like Gil Evans pedal point, and, well, whatever else he felt so inclined to add.
Some may yip at the arrangement of the old folk ditty "Shenandoah" (a warhorse so old, Lenny Bruce used to make fun of it), but Dudley Saunders' nasal, yearning vocal puts it over despite the many tonal lunacies which follow. 'Virgil Thomson on laughing gas' is a thought that occurs here, but (1) the sense of American optimism - remember it? - remains, and (2) I think that if Woodbury's oeuvre applies to any past grand master I would think it would have to be Charles Ives. As did Ives, Woodbury simply has no blinders on his view of music in general; to him 'tis a grand, magnificent tapestry of sound, all of it equally relevant. Where Ives comes in would probably be the second movement of his Fourth Symphony, in which the orchestra breaks up into a large group of modules, some painting in a maelstrom of sound for the remaining subgroups, while the latter play scraps of old popular and folk tunes like "Turkey In the Straw" or, shuddeingly, "Nearer My God to Thee." As just one example, Woodbury infuses a swing-era structure such as "Threnody for Kennedy and Connally" in a similar way with Monkish piano breaks, strummed banjos, winking woodwind underpinnings from another era entirely, and so forth. Pretty stunning. Elsewhere "Take the J Train" bounces percussing saxes off a meandering theme for trombone and violin. It's rather like how the J train ambles through Brooklyn and Queens, seemingly uncaring as to whether you get to your appointment on time. I should know. The pedal steel/banjo move in the break is an ear-popper as well. "Mom" opens and closes with somber cumulus-like expansions of tonal center from the horns; beautifully done, but you won't expect the alto sax ostinato that occupies the middle bit, about which the remainder of the group improvises and flits. "Long May She Wave" and "Venice, Italy" are longer meditations, one zoot-suited motif following something vaguely 'south of the border' and a snip of Alfred Newman film music, a lilting study for violins and clarinet... in short, since that would be a nice idea, the tempos and the ideas and the eras come fast and furious, most admittedly having at least a conversational acquaintance with recognizable Jazz forms.
Like many other of his contemporaries (Paul Minotto of the PrimeTime Sublime Community Orchestra, Graham Connah's Sour Note Seven, et al) Woodbury's genius is one of musical aerodynamics. Like my earlier example of Carl Reiner, you'll get the most out of this if you fly in the same direction. Whatever it may be. Leave your closed minds at the door, but by all means come in.
by Kenneth Egbert
New Sounds - August 2004
Jazz Now Interactive August 2004 Vol 14 No. 4 - Table of Contents