Guitarist Bob DeVos takes Ralph Bowen (tenor sax), Dan Kostelnik (Hammond B-3 organ) and Steve Johns on a sparkling, melodic exploration of a set of original compositions spiced with some blues, a bit of Latin flavor and some straight-ahead jazz on his latest album, Shadow Box. This is an ensemble that works together in support of the music; they play with nuanced clarity. Original tune or well-known standard, they treat the music with respect, taking it where it needs to go, never twisting it out of shape.
Of the eleven tracks on the album, standouts include three blues gems: “Born to Be Blue,” DeVos’s own “Blue Paint,” which he says sounds like blues but isn’t, and guitar great Wes Montgomery’s “Twisted Blues.” DeVos’s liner notes emphasize the second line groove established by Johns on Percy Mayfield’s rhythm and blues favorite, “The River’s Invitation,” but added to that is some rocking guitar and organ work as well. The album’s title tune, another DeVos original, has a theme that reminds me of the Suzanne Vega hit, “Tom’s Diner.” It’s a theme that keeps coming back as a stage for some dynamite solos. “After Burner” is an upbeat romp that gets the album going in the right direction.
Given the complaint, perhaps justified, perhaps not, of many a jazz musician that the audience for their music is dwindling, it is not surprising that the more enterprising among them are looking to find ways to stem the tide. Saxophonist/arranger Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra, a big band devoted to the music of the uniquely popular Icelandic singer/composer Bjork, may well have found at least one way. “Genre bending” seems to be the phrase most often associated with Bjorkestra’s music, and “genre bending” in some sense is, after all, what jazz is all about.
Bjork has written a good deal of remarkably interesting music, and Sullivan’s arrangements are often bold explorations of her work. I Go Humble is the orchestra’s second album. Its eight tracks were recorded live at the Jazz Standard in New York. Three of the songs, “Hyperballad,” “Hunter,” and “Army of Me” had been recorded in studio performance on their first album, Enjoy. Those of us who haven’t heard the first album will welcome the repetition, especially the exotic bolero-driven “Hunter,” which is a dynamic play on a brilliant composition.
Of the other tracks on the album, what Sullivan calls the “swinging-est tune in the Bjorkestra book,” “Venus as a Boy” stands out, as does Sean Nowell’s instrumental quintet arrangement of “Isobel,” a darkly moody piece.
Special note should be taken of singer Becca Stevens, who fronts the band for seven of the tunes. She has the kind of emotionally dramatic voice that is key to the interpretation of Bjork’s music. The important thing is that she is not doing a Bjork imitation. She is making the songs her own.