If you had to label the musical style of Crab People, the two-disc set from Canadian drummer Barry Romberg’s Random Access, number 12 in a series of recordings released over the past 12 years, the best description probably comes from Mark Miller of The Globe & Mail, who calls it “a heated post-fusion style of jazz.” Think Michael Brecker. Think Jack DeJohnette. Heavy company, but if you take a look at the quotations excerpted from critics on the Romberg website, you’ll see that the man and his music belong with these kinds of musicians, among the best of the jazz innovators. More importantly, listen to his music long enough and you’ll understand why.
Random Access, an ensemble that has taken a variety of shapes over the years, began as a seven-member studio experiment, then became a larger ensemble with 10 horns, then a unit featuring Ravi Naimpally on tabla, and then a quartet. The group playing on Crab People is made up in varying combinations of Geoff Young and Ben Monder on guitar, Rich Brown on electric bass, Kelly Jefferson on tenor and soprano sax, Kirk MacDonald on tenor sax, Kieran Overs and Julian Anderson-Bowes on acoustic bass, Robi Botos on keys, Naimpally, and of course, Romberg on drums.
All the tunes on the album are Romberg compositions, except for the three parts of the title piece on which Romberg collaborated with Young and “Nineteen Sixty Seven (Parts 1-2),” “2O% Off,” “Play Electric, Think Acoustic,” and the album’s closer “No Turning Back” which were improvised collectively by the ensemble. In a sense these pieces emphasize the free flowing character of Romberg’s aesthetic. Improvising in the moment can lead to some very fine music for the artist willing to take the risk, although when you’ve gathered together a group of pros, the risk is minimal, if even a risk at all.
The title song comes from a South Park episode in which the crab people try to take over the world. Romberg calls it a metaphor which extends to all the “%^$#*’s” in the world. It closes out the first disc with some bravura work by Turcotte and Young. “Play Electric, Think Acoustic” is a magical improvisation with an eerie vibe between Romberg, Young and Brown. “20% Off,” the album notes indicate, was “essentially the head phone check” and features guitar solos from Young and Monder. “Mecca Pecca” which opens the set has some nice solo work from Jefferson.
The second disc begins with a three-part suite dedicated to Romberg’s mother who suffers from dementia. It opens with a haunting theme that captures the intense melancholy of the situation. “6 to the 5 to the 7 to the 9” plays with a variety of rhythmic figures. “Furthest Realm” has the drummer playing off Monder’s guitar and Overs’ bass. It lays an almost romantic guitar line over some dynamic drum work. “Retroactive (schvingy tabla)” is a witty piece the notes call “kind of a coda section for another tune.”
Crab People is the kind of album you want to listen to a few times before you make up your mind about it. The more you listen, the better you’ll like it. You can hear a couple of the songs from the album along with some other samples of Random Access on the Romberg website.