One of the more compelling story lines in the excellent HBO series Treme follows Delmond Lambreaux, a jazz trumpeter raised in New Orleans and living in New York City. Delmond's cerebral hard-bop style seems to turn its back on the more visceral jazz tradition of his hometown, but he eventually becomes disillusioned with modern jazz's insular world. One day, while visiting his father in the Big Easy, he watches some Mardi Gras Indians perform "Shallow Water, Oh Mama" while the jazz classic "Killer Joe" plays on a nearby boombox. As Delmond takes in the odd synergism of the unintentional mash-up, he has an epiphany, and embarks on a new project, fusing modern jazz with the slinky, visceral Mardi Gras music of his youth.
Though born and raised in Nashville, saxophonist Chris West might have had a similar revelation at some point. Listening to his new album, Surprise Trilogy 2 (the second installment of a three-part series), you get the impression he's come to the same conclusion: Screw the jazz police. This shit's supposed to be fun, not a museum piece. If you keep your eye on the idiom's populist roots, embrace the forefathers' trailblazing spirit — and most importantly, ignore any arbitrary boundaries imposed by purists — the results can be exhilarating.
Nowhere is West's free-spirited attitude more evident than on the opening and closing tracks, "Surprise 2" and "Surprise 3," which are radically different versions of the same song. "Surprise 2" features members of Half Brass — a Nashville group in the spirit of second-line torchbearers like Dirty Dozen and Rebirth — and would sound right at home in a Mardi Gras parade. (West is a member of Half Brass, in addition to being an in-demand sideman who's worked with everyone from Brenda Lee and Deana Carter to Mike Farris and The Dynamites.)
Meanwhile, "Surprise 3" employs a completely different backing band, and has more in common with avant-jazz pranksters Sex Mob than with a French Quarter throwdown. Essentially a deconstruction of the former track, it includes some terrific interplay between West and saxophonist Jeff Coffin (a mentor to West over the years), weaving back and forth between harmony and cacophony while exploiting the, er, hell out of the devil's interval.
Varied approaches aside, though, both tracks have the same unabashed, life-affirming energy that is at the heart of jazz's New Orleans roots. And that's not to mention the other two versions of "Surprise" from the first album in the trilogy. In fact, of the 18 tracks on the first two discs, four of them are variations of the same song. And there are guaranteed to be more "Surprises" on ST3. It's an engaging conceit, kind of like the big reprise at the end of a Broadway musical, and it gives the project some thematic continuity, in addition to providing some of the most explosive moments.
That's not to dismiss the songs that aren't titled "Surprise," nor is it to suggest that this is an exclusively New Orleans affair. Far from it. The second track, "Maybe," feels like a contemporary spin on Impressions-era Coltrane, and the three songs that follow — "New Insight," "Pawn Shop Junkie" and "Perception of Perfection" — are complex and cerebral enough to pass muster with the most uptight jazz purists. (And that's not a dis — "Pawn Shop Junkie," with its obtuse, Monk-ish melody, is one of the strongest cuts.)
Other standouts include the Latin-tinged "Time's Up" as well as "Rude Awakening," an all-sax workout with West playing every instrument: Imagine the World Saxophone Quartet performing All Things Considered segue music. (Also not a dis — who doesn't love those segues?)
This may all sound like a stylistic mishmosh, but it works, partly because West has honed his compositional skills, but more so because he's grown into his voice, a sound that's identifiable whether he's blowing over hard-bop changes or putting the hot sauce on some greasy musical gumbo. With his Trilogy series, West is establishing himself as one of the area's top jazz artists, on par with heavyweights such as Coffin, Don Aliquo and Rod McGaha. And like post-epiphany Delmond Lambreaux, he's not going to be boxed in.
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