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CD Review: Bobby Previte’s Coalition of the Willing

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Sometimes an album comes along that catches you totally by surprise. I mean, I’m ready for anything: Balinese gamelan music, recordings of shortwave static, German industrial music, Ace of Base, but I wasn’t ready for Bobby Previte’s Coalition of the Willing.

I don’t know much about Bobby Previte. I know he’s from Buffalo. I know he’s a drummer and that he’s big on the downtown Manhattan jazz scene. I know he’s got a reputation for being a great player, a pioneering composer, and a freaky cat. He has interesting hair. But beyond that, the music of Bobby Previte is terra incognita to me.

I’m up for third stream, new wave, nu metal, Japanese dance, Greek art music, art house, acid house, acid jazz, jazz flute, Malinese song-flute, Hawaiian nose-flute, power pop, hard bop, Billy Joel and Iggy Pop, rockabilly, punkabilly, Carter Family, Manson Family, the Family Stone, the Stone Temple Pilots, Temple of the Dog, and antisocial synthesizer belches from two-person bands from northern Vermont.

But I never expected surf music. Surf music! And psychedelic garage rock! And Miles Davis-style chugging electric glowering! And, and spy music! Like James Bond! And remember Lalo Schifrin, the guy who wrote the “Mission Impossible” theme, whose personal style mixed Continental snazzery with Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass and a dash of neatly tailored rock and roll? Him, too!

When Bobby Previte’s new album crossed my decks, my first thought was, verbatim, “… the hell is this?” Mainly, this was brought on by the cover art and album title. Previte’s current band is called the Coalition of the Willing, which on its own is kind of funny, a gloss on a phrase that’s been around since the 1980s, but which George W. Bush catapulted to fame (or infamy) when he applied it to the nations that backed the libervasion of Iraq in 2003. Fans of Robert Anton Wilson will remember the running joke toward the end of the Illuminatus! trilogy with all the bands named after real-world things, like “The American Medical Association.” Other, less nerdy people might be familiar with Dave Barry’s running joke that things like The Coalition of the Willing “would make a great band name.” Either way, “Coalition of the Willing” is a great name for a band.

However. Over the last five years or so my patience for all things Orwellian has run thin. This goes both for actual pieces of Orwelliana like the fatuously named “Department of Homeland Security” as well as pretend pieces of Orwelliana, like albums that take half their song titles from the pages of 1984. Indeed, The Coalition of the Willing features the titles, “The Ministry of Truth,” “The Ministry of Love,” “Memory Hole,” and “Oceania,” as well as an album cover in the classic Che/Castro/Anarchist hues of red, white and black and festooned with raised fists. Ugh. Whatever they were going for with the cover art, what they came up with makes my eyes roll, my gorge rise, and awakens an urge in my heart to grab a truncheon and stand guard on the nearest barricade on behalf of The Man, The System, and capitalist pigs anywhere. Filthy lucre forever!!

Oh, right. The music. What’s the music like?

It turns out that The Coalition of the Willing features one of the largest differentials between cover art quality and the quality of the music inside since Guns & Roses scrapped the original “robot rape” cover to Appetite For Destruction for the less awful version we all know and love.

That is to say, The Coalition Of The Willing is a damn good record, eight long instrumental slices of jazz-inflected rock spiked with liberal dashes of surf and spy music, fusion a la electric Miles Davis, and even house and reggae. There’s not a slack bit, there are no twiddly precious solos, and all the genre-hopping manages to add spice, rather than just confuse matters.

Previte is a sensitive drummer with a great sense of groove, and the players he assembled for this project are uniformly top-notch. Notably, guitar wizard Charlie Hunter plays on every track, even choosing to lay aside his trademark eight-string guitar for a standard six-string model. And although he is by far the best-known musician to grace these tracks, he doesn’t overshadow the other contributors, who include Steve Bernstein (of the unfortunately-named New York group Sex Mob) on trumpet, Jamie Saft on the Hammond organ, Stew Cutler on occasional harmonica, the one-named Skerik, a tenor saxophonist who plays with Les Claypool of Primus, and Stanton Moore, drummer for the jammy New Orleans funk outfit Galactic.

Anyway, about the music. Given that Bobby Previte and Charlie Hunter are pretty well known for playing hip, cerebral, and challenging New York jazz, the last thing I expected when I popped this album in the player was to be met at the door by a groove that is about 50% “Incense and Peppermints” and 50% theme music to some lurid imaginary Roger Corman film with a title like “Surf Nazis Run Wild!!!” or “Bikini Girl Go-Go Shootout!!!”

And yet, the very first track overcomes its Orwellian title (“The Ministry of Truth”) with just such a sound, a snazzy, tacky vibe driven by the jet-setting Hammond organ of Jamie Saft and a foursquare beat from Previte that would be equally at home on a Lalo Shifrin album or some lost track from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. Over this, Charlie Hunter spits edgy chromatic James Bond-theme-style melodic fragments until he is mugged by a scratchy harmonica solo from Stew Cutler. The whole thing brings to mind a dizzying array of great pop culture moments, from the original Batman TV series to Ren & Stimpy, and that’s just in the first five minutes of the record.

Throughout, Previte and his band switch gears without even trying. “Oceania” jams a 12-string guitar riff that sounds like a broken-down Midnight Oil song right next to more spy music right next to reggae without even blinking. Impressively, this all sounds perfectly natural. None of the transitions anywhere on the record sound forced or awkward, no matter how unrelated the two sections might be. Whether it is Hunter’s metal riffage on “The Ministry of Love,” the atmospheric house-inflected groove of “Anthem for Andrea” or Skerik’s ruminatory make-out sax on “Memory Hole,” there’s not a moment where the album sounds flat or self-indulgent. For an instrumental album made by a bunch of serious jazzheads, that’s flat out impressive.

The final test, of course, is to try this album out on someone unsuspecting. Someone whose relationship to music is less fanatic than mine. Someone who doesn’t dig on modern art music that sounds like you’ve stuck your head in an air duct. Someone who doesn’t get the melody lines from archival Frank Zappa live performances stuck in their head for days on end. What I’m trying to say is, my wife dug this album too.

The Coalition Of The Willing features players of fearsome talent playing stylish, sinister, beautiful, fractured, epic music with a sense of fun that dumps any consternation caused by the strange song-title and cover art choices right down the memory hole.

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