Jerry Granelli & Badlands,
Enter, a Dragon
(Songlines, 1998)

Certainly a varied recording, this; even, on first listen, a bitty one. It combines the group playing compositions (mostly by drummer Jerry Granelli) and politely taking solos with a series of "haikus" in which each band-member in turn duets with Granelli in a free improvised setting. The results are mixed in terms of listening to the album end-to-end, but there's a lot to enjoy here for the persistent.

It's a good band, which helps. Chris Speed, on clarinet and tenor sax, is a very capable and interesting player; the other two reedsmen -- Peter Epstein (soprano and alto sax) and Briggan Krauss (alto sax) -- though previously unknown to this writer except as names, also have nice things to say and this disc is rather tantalising in that respect. Curtis Hasselbring (trombone) is a real winner, something like a brash, American Paul Rutherford, and Jamie Saft (keys, guitar) has a good handle on texture, with his clavinet and accordion seeming to predominate. J. Anthony Granelli is hardly a virtuoso on the bass, but he's solid and most of his work here is supportive, though he can be irresistably funky on tracks like "Sting Thing."

Jerry Granelli himself is a very flash drummer, funky and rocky rather than hard-swinging despite the fact that many of these pieces have a jazz feel. That gives the whole thing (bar the haikus) the feel of a '70s cop show theme; the saxes squealing to get out of their 4/4 box, the big, Lalo Schifrin harmonies shifting around like weather systems until the first solo comes in and blows them away like a strong wind. This is no bad thing.

There's too much music around which focuses on the "retro" appeal of this material, and which as a result comes off cheesy and, at best, lightly amusing. What Badlands do is focus on the free jazz which was always bubbling under the surface of this kind of music, and they gain a special perspective from the distance between then and now. The results can be astonishingly good, as on "Shih," which regularly dissolves its brassy, macho theme in a piano-bass-drums whirlwind.

The haikus are nice, although they do break up the experience of listening rather distressingly. Hasselbring's is exceptionally good; Chris Speed, who's got his slurred, grouchy, croaky hat on for much of this disc, turns in a frantically inventive performance. Epstein and Krauss have similar styles, so it's nice to hear them set apart in their different haikus; Epstein worrying at a series of ideas with fluidly articulated gestures, Krauss taking a similar set of techniques into more lengthy melodies intercut with jazzy growls. No, they don't come across as geniuses here, but this isn't really a showcase for them, and it wouldn't be fair to judge them on the strength of it. Certainly their contributions to the ensemble pieces are inspired. Special mention to Saft, also, for his lovely haiku. There's no complaining over the quality of these pieces, it's just that they do rather break up the program.

Nobody gets a great deal of room here except, fittingly, the drummer, who makes good use of it. The compositions are the stars, and many of them do work very well. Some can be just a touch too dirge-like -- "Berlin Sky" being the main offender -- but even then there's always a change of pace just around the corner. Cinematic and nostalgic, but defiantly contemporary.

[ by Richard Cochrane ]



Buy Enter, a Dragon from Amazon.com.