“File under jazz,” says the press release for Native Sons, the new album from Nonch Harpin’. And sure, it’s jazz, with liquid melodies from Chinh Tran’s tenor and soprano saxes and splashes of shiny Brubeckian harmonics. But other facets reflect colors of funk, rock, and jam-band music. And this quintet, whose name is a Boontling term (Boontling is a distinctive jargon spoken only in Boonville, California) that loosely translates as “dirty talk,” brings it all off with rootsy simplicity and fresh-sounding power.
From the get-go, with the weird 5/4 beat of “Mr. Rocket Boots Celery Man” (amusingly fanciful song titles are a bonus attraction), these sly musicians weave a web of smooth themes and spidery solos, their earthy vibe reinforced by a clean but lo-fi roominess in the recording, uncomplicated arrangements, and tribal rhythms. Alan Spearot’s gutsy drumming on “The Sheltering Sky” under Tran’s soprano sax lines and the nasal tones of Daniel Raynaud’s keyboard lifts the 10-minute track into a groove that’s somehow exciting and meditative at the same time. Bassist Shawn Ellis saws his deepest notes under a quiet middle section that puts me in a hazy Deep Purple/King Crimson frame of mind.
The snaky blues of the next track feels somehow appropriate to its title, “Li’l Antonin Scalia.” Coincidentally released just after the death of the Supreme Court justice, the album as a whole has a kind of dark voodoo flow, and the song’s odd time signatures and rock-and-roll electric guitar suggest something deliriously twisted. So does the cow moo that introduces the psychedelic boogie-woogie funk of “By the Way, Frances,” which builds to a joyous rave-up.
“Souphounds and Strays” has a dusty speakeasy-Americana feel, with Andy Markham on tasteful acoustic guitar. And if Jerry Garcia had joined a heavy metal jazz band – assuming there were such a thing – “Brown Rice is a Bummer” might have been the first single.
The band surrenders to an aimless jam-band laziness in “A Forgotten Guitar,” but after that isolated low point, the album perks back up as Arabic ecstasy lays down acid roots in “Derring-Do,” and Ellis’s toe-tapping bass groove alternates with unexpected spaces and changing atmospheres to drive “The Fat Samaritan.”
Jazz, sure, but a smoky breed of Americana too. Come to think of it, how much more “American” can music get than jazz? With the perfectly titled Native Sons, Nonch Harpin’ scoops out a redolent handful of the living loam of American music.