Jazz-rock is an unloved genre, conjouring up images of endless noodling and tedious keyboard and drum solos. Well that was the seventies. These days, jazz acts who rock out or rock acts who jazz up are more likely to take their cue from post-punk, avant-rock and free jazz forebears than prog behemoths. New York quartet Gutbucket are one such group. Their music is eclectic, wild and unpredictable with nods to acts as diverse as Ornette Coleman, James Chance, King Crimson and Polvo. They’ve been together for a decade and A Modest Proposal is their fourth album – the first, though, that’s made its way to these ears.
Star of the show is saxophonist and clarinetist Ken Thomson, but the others all have plenty of room in the limelight. Even new drummer Adam Gold gets a solo on “More More Bigger Better…”. But it’s not that kind of record – this is an ensemble work rather than a collection of ‘look-at-me’ showcases.
In a strange bit of programming, the album kicks off with its two weakest tracks. “Head Goes Thud” jumps about from one time signature to another without much direction, and “A Little Anarchy” sounds flat and sluggish, with little dynamism. Things improve markedly from there on in. Its title taken from JFK’s (in)famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” gaff, “I am a Jelly Doughnut” is a proggy beast with shades of early King Crimson. The aforementioned “More More Bigger Better” is the first track to show a lightness of touch that is sometimes lacking on the record. It has a bright, spritely feel to it, with Thomson switching between clarinet and alto sax.
Backwards guitar loops, and some wigged out axe-work by Ty Citerman give “Carnivore” a definite prog-rock feel – like Van Der Graaf Generator at their most intense. “Doppelganger’s Requiem” provides a welcome, mellow pause for breath, before the bonkers “Lucy Ferment?” steams in, switching from free jazz to a klezmer freak-out and back again at will.
The last third of the album doesn’t quite maintain the genre-hopping madness of the preceding five cuts. “C’mon It’s Just a Dollar” is almost pop, with a catchy guitar riff. The finger-clicking, cool jazz core of “Side Effects” is sandwiched between two blasts of free squonk. As is traditional, the final track builds from quiet beginnings (in this case all manner of avant-garde scraping and banging) into a loud furious conclusion, although “Brain Born Outside the Head” doesn’t climax with the kind of fury that would set it apart.
Gutbucket are probably best sampled live, but A Modest Proposal captures the group’s freewheeling spirit pretty well. The album takes a while to pick up, but is quite a ride once it gets going. The album is released on January 20th.
1 Head Goes Thud 5:06
2 A Little Anarchy Never Hurt Everyone 4:04
3 I Am a Jelly Doughnut (Or a Commentary on US German Relations Post WWII) 5:10
4 More More Bigger Better Easter with Cheese 4:38
5 Carnivore 6:26
6 Doppelganger’s Requiem 3:50
7 Lucy Ferment? 2:56
8 C’mon It’s Just a Dollar 5:20
9 Side Effects May Include 7:03
10 Brain Born Outside of Its Head 5:17