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Cheer Me, Perverts!

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Album Review

Belgium's 15-piece Flat Earth Society are one of the hottest big bands on the planet, but are they a jazz big band? On the evidence of 2009's Cheer Me, Perverts!, the answer would be generally no and generally yes, in that order. The album's first track, "Vole Sperm Reverie," might be as jazzy as Frank Zappa ever got, appropriate for a piece seemingly designed to display the sensibilities and advanced electric guitar-istics of Zappaholic Pierre Vervloesem, whose scrambled name provides the anagram song title, just as bandleader/clarinetist's Peter Vermeersch's name is scrambled to form the title of the CD itself. But Zappa wasn't really jazz for purists even when at his jazziest — say, The Grand Wazoo — and "Vole Sperm Reverie" isn't either, with its swingin'/slammin' jazz-rock rhythms, Vervloesem exercising his chops, and the prominent organ voicings of Peter Vandenberghe substituting for George Duke's keyboards. Until a full-ensemble bridge late in the tune, the band's reeds and horns are largely there for riffing embellishment and punctuation; this is about the closest FES have come to their '90s avant jazz-rock antecedent, X-Legged Sally, a Vermeersch-led group about half the size of FES and also featuring Vervloesem, Vandenberghe, and two other Flat Earthers, trumpeter Bart Maris and saxophonist Michel Mast. The next track, "Rearm, Get That Char!," is truly classic FES, so staccato and punchy that the hornmen probably had to apply ice packs to the lower portions of their faces after playing it. The multi-sectioned piece features skewed rhythms like the title track of the group's previous Crammed CD, Psychoscout — as if FES are from a planet where dancing is mandatory but straight dance rhythms are utterly forbidden. There's an electric Miles-ish trumpet solo early on, and later in this monster Vermeersch takes a clarinet solo but seems a bit quiet in the overall mix — and yet the backing arrangement is so clipped and tight that you hear his every nuance. Amidst this track's many layers, even the thwack of a single percussion instrument has dead air around it.

After the Greek cuisine-inspired "Kotopoulopology" and the spiraling Middle Eastern modes of "Blind Inside" and "Bad Linen" (the latter throwing in brassy spy and circus music flavors), the listener might think a respite has arrived with the opening moments of "Too Sublime in Sin," calm and crystalline with bass, piano, and vibes in nighttime reverie, but don't settle in too comfortably — you will be out of your chair faster than a hapless bad guy tossed airborne by the ejector seat in 007's Aston-Martin (although the jumpiness of "Sin" is more Hitchcock than Bond). And then, a funny thing happens. First, the band actually does calm down on a version of Charlie Shavers' "Dawn on the Desert," a beautiful clarinet showcase mixing "The Mooche" with XLS' "Down at the Dinghy," and across the next three tracks Vermeersch and company have seemingly transitioned from an avant/experimental band with a jazz jones to a jazz band with deep avant/experimental tendencies. FES don't exactly play it straight and they still have a few warped surprises in store, but they also loosen up the arrangements, interject some madly swinging interludes, and offer up exploratory piano, reed, and brass solos and (especially on Vandenberghe's "Smoke on Fire, the King Is Burning") moody and textured ensemble investigations. By the time the CD has run its course, FES have managed to cover a wide spectrum of both jazz and non-jazz creative music, riveting the listener every step of the way. Regardless of stylistic labels, nearly everything here astounds, and Cheer Me, Perverts! is one of the most exciting releases of 2009.

Biography

Formed: 1997

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

If you claim past or present membership in the Flat Earth Society, you could have been part of a youthful psychedelic pop band in Boston during the '60s, or perhaps you feel that gravity and orbiting satellites are part of a vast conspiracy to conceal the truth of humankind's true place at the center of creation. Then again, maybe you're part of an adventurous avant-garde big band from Belgium, particularly that part of Belgium that has historically been known as Flanders. The topography of the Flemish...
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Cheer Me, Perverts!, Flat Earth Society
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