THE TREEHOUSE PROJECT

The Picture Show
482 Music 482-1008/482-1009/482-1010

Usually when people talk about jazz-fusion, the music being defined is attached to showy instrumental rock. Other familiar fusions involve yoking a jazz sensibility to Latin American timbres or to so-called classical music. But on this three-CD set the five plus members of The Treehouse Project have created their own fusion.

It’s a double fusion in fact. First of all, these Chicago-area players have added a jazz sensibility to roots music, coming up with the sort of sounds that may have resulted if anyone had a record of the legendary episode Charlie Parker was supposed to have sat in with a hillbilly band. Secondly, each of the three CDs treats the songs in different ways. The third — and frankly least interesting — disc finds the band doing nightclub style instrumental versions of folk, pop and rock hits initially recorded by folks like Cream, Dusty Springfield, Ray Charles and Ron Sexsmith. The second CD — and centrepiece of the project — contains 13 compositions written by drummer Michael Reed, reflecting the messages and ideas he gleaned from a number of home snapshots. The first session takes this idea even further, with all band members shown another random group of photos, usually taken in suburban settings, and asked to create musical stories that reflect them all. Imagine the results as what would transpire if John Cage’s ideas about chance were adapted by the Partridge Family band.

Jazz-rooted good time music characterizes Reed’s vision, with 13 different photos examined in slightly more than 39 minutes. Contributing to this ambiance are the post-country, pedal steel guitar contributions of Ken Champion. Someone who has recorded with Chicago avant rocker Jim O’Rourke, the ringing tones emanating from his eight-string open up new sound vistas. On “Dance Lesson”, for instance, a slinky Henry Mancini-style number, his resoundings meld with Reed’s rim shots, suggesting what would have happened if George Benson had discovered country music before Ray Charles did.

“Curtain”, on the other hand, which opens with a shimmering glissando provided by guest Lisa Shrag’s harp, suggests the steel’s Hawaiian background. When his pedal lines meet guest Nate Walcott’s finely-arched trumpeting plus the raspy honk of John Doyle’s tenor saxophone and Colin Bunn’s guitar fuzztones, the tune wavers between rock and rockabilly. Maybe this is what Bill Haley’s Saddlemen sounded like before they became the Comets.

Doyle, who has put in time with the Wabash Jug Band as well as one led by jazz drummer Dave Pavkovic, not only enlivens tunes like the Latinesque “Ugliest Girl Alive” with his sax playing, but shows a command of both registers of the clarinet throughout. Especially noteworthy is his abstruse liquid tone on “The Big Top”, adding to Reed’s subtle rim shots and drumstick percussion, while somebody or somebodies manages to produce a circus-like calliope sound. The licorice stick is much in evidence on “The Cocktail Party Effect”, which despite its title has a guitar-guided melody that sounds as if it came off of a 1930s tap dance session.

Guitarist Bunn, who is part of Kevin O’Doyle’s Quality Six retro swing band, proves here that he can channel Carl Kress, when he isn’t being Link Wray on rock tunes such as “A Perfect Fit”. Throughout, Matt Thompson holds steady a solid bass line, easily explaining how his experience has encompassed blues with the Mighty Blues Kings and jazz with Chicago’s legendary tenor man Von Freeman.

Related more to what you would expect from pre-blues traditional fiddler Butch Cage or Dixieland trumpeter Pete Bocage, then John Cage’s theories, CAMEO FRAME is pretty much of a piece with the second disc, although the eight tunes here are improvisations, inspired by similar-looking suburban snapshots rather than Reed’s compositions.

When band members share so many musical values that’s to be expected. But this mixture of foot-tapping country, rockabilly and light jazz mixed with some outside effects becomes pretty commonplace after a while.

The undulating “Slow Boat” for example, with its romantic tenor sax tones and swaying pedal steel, sounds like what would have happened if Nashville sessionman Pete Drake had made sessions with saxophonist King Curtis. Thompson and Reed have no problem keeping the rhythm straightahead, but there’s the fear the any moment the song will turn into Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk”. Much more impressive is “A Little Pick-Me-Up”. Here Doyle goes from a clean reading of the theme in liquid clarinet tones to dirtier reed explorations on saxophone. Looser then he is elsewhere, Reed concentrates on rim shots and a veritable soft-shoe of a drum solo at the end.

With the total time of the CDs clocking in at about 104 minutes, you wonder why the band didn’t put out two instead of three CDs. Better still, why didn’t they employ more judicious editing and produce one excellent disc instead of three meandering ones? With the last disc pretty much a Middle of the Road write-off, the other two could have been abridged and reduced to their most impressive properties.

Especially in non-popular music, one should always beware of anything called a “project”. Reed & Co. obviously have the talent to produce something better. They just must control themselves and refine its musical essence.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing:

Disc 1: Prologue: Cameo Frame 1. Tic-Toc 2. The Party 3. Slow Boat 4. Little Pick-Me-Up 5. Tic-Toc Reprise 6. Never One To Complain 7. A Few Good Men 12. Graduation Day

Disc 2: The Picture Show:1. Places Everyone 2. Hold it…hold it! 3. The ugliest girl alive 4. Time Out 5. Corsages 6. The Big Top 7. Intermission 8. Curtain 9. The Cocktail Party Effect 10. The Slow Learners Club 11. A perfect Fit 12. A Dance Lesson 13. A Place For Us

Disc 3: Epilogue: 1. Last Words 2. Politician 3. Just a Little Loving 4. You Don’t Know .

Me 5. Child Star 6. The Dutch Boy 7. Just a Song Before I Go

Personnel: Disc 1: Jonathan Doyle (tenor saxophone and clarinet); Ken Champion (pedal steel guitar); John Matt Thompson (bass, violin ukulele *); Mike Reed (drums)

Disc 2: Doyle; Champion; Thompson; Reed plus: Nate Walcott (trumpet); Brian Anderson (piano); Colin Bunn (guitar); Lisa Shrag (harp); John “Bud” Poston (banjo)

Disc 3: Doyle; Bunn; Champion; Thompson; Reed