Swell Henry
Squealer SQLR 040

Known for his incisive soloing with prototypical downtown groups lead by the likes of altoist Tim Berne’s and pianist Myra Melford, reedist Chris Speed, seems most concerned with lyricism, Balkan inflections and ambience here.

Not a smooth jazz record, the less than 39-minute session could easily be confused for a soft-rock outing by members of a metal band eager to display their chops in a quieter setting. Cumulatively the 10 tracks offer little more than music that could be played for dancing and background during a semi-hip wedding in Manhattan’s East Village or Brooklyn’s Park Slope.

Yeah NO includes drummer Jim Black and electric bassist Skuli Sverisson, who along with Speed and guitarist Hilmar Jensson – guesting on one track – operate in similar, though rockier territory in the drummer’s AlasNoAxis band. Additional dense harmonies are slathered over most of the tracks by Rob Burger’s accordion and/or Jamie Saft’s mellotron or Wurlitzer electric piano. Remaining member is trumpeter Cuong Vu, who despite membership in Pat Metheny’s most recent touring combo, manages to do something more with jazz-rock interface on his own CDs.

Saft’s mellotron noodling is particularly unfortunate, since when it’s featured, the band leans into King Crimson territory. In fact nearly all of the undulating keyboard textures create similar harmonics, smoothing out the few spiky impulses Vu’s double-tongued plunger growls or Speed’s barnyard squeaks proffer. With the themes nearly indistinguishable from one another, solo work is often reduced to breaks among collective coloration.

Electrified, sluicing bass lines and shuffle beats from the drums are the most common accompaniment. Nadir is reached on a couple of tunes where impudent polyphony from the horns gives way to a steady almost monochromatic line centred around a folkie guitar, picked clawhammer style and sounding as if it was break time at an Eagles concert. Since no acoustic guitarist is listed, no individual blame can be ascribed.

In short, SWELL HENRY is more “no” than “yeah”.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. She Has Four Thorns* 2. Last Beginning* 3. Born in the Air*+ 4. Camper Giorno+ 5. Cloud Stopper 6. Flanked^ 7. He Has a Pair of Dice 8. Dead Water* 9. Staircase Genius*# 10.Kip Files$

Personnel: Cuong Vu (trumpet); Chris Speed (tenor saxophone, clarinet and Casio); Rob Burger (accordion*); Jamie Saft (mellotron+); Wurlitzer electric piano^); Hilmar Jensson (guitar#); Skuli Sverisson (electric bass); Jim Black (drums); Speak & Spell (program$)