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Chance Episodes

Dead Cat Bounce

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Album Review

Chance Episodes, the 2011 Cuneiform label debut from Matt Steckler’s Dead Cat Bounce, provides an earful for those drawn to the sound of saxophones harmonizing beautifully together — and soloing with gusto — without a lot of extraneous clutter. Saxophonists Steckler, Jared Sims, Terry Goss, and veteran Charlie Kohlhase cover the range from soprano to baritone, with some flute from the leader, supported by the incisive yet sensitive rhythm section of upright bassist Dave Ambrosio and drummer Bill Carbone, who never get in the way of those saxes in all of their glory. It’s easy to see why Cuneiform signed them; the label has been bolstering its jazz cred lately and also has a longstanding “avant” reputation to protect. And in Cuneiform’s case, rather than signifying absence of form or structure, avant jazz is more likely defined by long-form compositions, inventive arrangements, shifting moods, hot soloing, and overall unpredictability. All those elements are present and accounted for here. Sizable doses of down-low bluesy swing à la Charles Mingus’ Blues & Roots are also present, leavened by some quirkiness recalling another Cuneiform act, the Microscopic Septet, with Steckler’s tart yet amiable soprano not unlike that of the Micros’ Phillip Johnston right from the get-go on opener “Food Blogger.” A tight focus and shifting groove are maintained throughout this and other tunes, with the tricky ensemble passages embellishing and accenting the saxmen who strut their solos up front, although “Far from the Matty Crowd” interrupts the momentum for some free-form squalling before the clattering rhythm section kicks in, soon punctuated by funked-up unison sax riffing.

“Salon Sound Journal” is one of the album’s more ambitious compositions, indeed journal-like as widely varied segments — from thoroughly composed delicate reeds-and-flute interludes to driving sax-bass-drums vamps and bright sax charts — shift as quickly as the turning of pages. This is one of Chance Episodes’ better examples of the album’s theme, “memory’s haphazard way of bringing to the fore seemingly unrelated events, so that an episodic personal narrative is created, as if ‘by chance’,” but that theme is well represented elsewhere, as in the immediately following “Bio Dyno Man,” with complex scoring fitting easily over a relaxed rhythmic pace and stops and starts executed so smoothly that the flow continues unimpeded. There’s a fine soprano solo from Steckler as the tempo quickens, and Ambrosio is featured in an exploratory segment accented by widely spaced spiraling flute and sax interjections. Elsewhere, composer Steckler’s memories carry him through the ebullient harmonies of “Township Jive Revisited” and the Eastern European and klezmer-informed modes of “Silent Movie, Russia 1995,” while literally beeping horns ride the racetrack of “Watkins Glen” over a fast-paced arco improvisation from Ambrosio and Carbone’s precise timekeeping. The unbridled free polyphony, swinging ensembles, inspired sax tradeoffs, and dynamic buildup of the concluding “Living the Dream” suggest that straight-up jazz catharsis could be the strongest single memory guiding Steckler’s narrative scheme.

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