Pork Chop Blue Around the Rind
Cuneiform Records Rune 205

One of the very few rockers name-checked by aware improvisers, Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet) and his Magic Band is often cited as an example of how musicians could play sophisticated post-rock music and still maintain a following.

True, but many of the fans of Van Vliet’s along with those of Frank Zappa were more attracted to his storied weirdness than the music itself. Even the more sophisticated sometimes balked at Van Vliet’s voice which ranged from near Howlin’ Wolf-like timbres at best to replication of retching at worst.

That’s why Fast ‘N’ Bulbous’ first CD is so impressive. Truth be told, Beefheart and his various Magic Bands were, like the Lounge Lizards, a lot better at so-called “fake” jazz, then the real stuff. However, this all-instrumental group has the chops and the instrumental acumen to go beyond this. Arranged by alto saxophonist Phillip Johnston, an original downtowner, who also writes for film and dance companies, it features original Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas. Lucas, whose collaborators have ranged from singer Jeff Buckley to Dutch lute player Josef Van Wissem, adds the proper gravitas, not to mention rock-like licks. Rhythm section is ex-James White drummer Richard Dworkin and avant-math-rocker Jesse Krakow on bass. Besides Johnston, the other horns are baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson, who is also in the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra; trombonist Joe Fiedler who has played in Anthony Braxton’s and Satoko Fujii’s big bands; and trumpeter Rob Henke who moves between jazz, theatre and rock.

Simple riff pieces in the main, Van Vliet’s melodies still give the septet members plenty of space on which to blow, with frequent pitch and tempo changes. Moreover, unlike compositions by say, Charles Mingus or Bob Dylan which were meant to sound a certain way, or conversely like the music of say, Gershwin which has been interpreted endlessly, the Beefheart oeuvre has a couple of advantages. Improvisations can be shoehorned into the songs without offending purists, plus the tunes are obscure enough for many to offer a new listening experience.

Encompassing elements of Second Line strut, Middle European brass bands, vamping Stax-Volt horn sections, cartoony circuses and Western Swing, the 13 tracks flash by at breakneck pace, most driven by strong backbeat from Dworkin and colorful string decorations from Lucas. Much more than an arena rocker, the guitarist is able to mutate his output so that it contains hints of slide blues, Scruggs banjo picking, Hawaiian guitar and oscillating electronica tinged interludes. Krakow builds a foursquare rhythmic foundation, throughout. But there are times he or Lucas singly or together, suddenly unleash surf guitar runs.

Arranger Johnson, whose pioneering Microscopic Septet was a link between Beefheart, Zappa and John Zorn, contributes the occasional smooth alto solo and trumpeter Henke advances pointed, chromatic runs. But the most noticeable adaptations came from trombonist Fiedler and baritonist Sewelson. Besides his regular riff exploration, somehow, at one point, the latter manages the trick of transforming his axe into a fuzz bass. As for Fiedler, his expostulations range from wah wahs to whinnying and can make common cause with everything from finger picking guitar to “Pretty Woman”-like drumbeats.

Not exactly rock around the bebop, PORK CHOP BLUE AROUND THE RIND is a salute without being slavish. Nor forgetting Van Vliet’s occasional surrealistic touches –what does “When I See Mommy I Feel Like a Mummy” mean anyhow? – the CD’s only drawback is the freight train speed at which most compositions are performed.

But that may result from staying true to The Captain’s rhythmic vision.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Suction Prints 2. Abba Zaba 3. When I See Mommy I Feel Like a Mummy 4. Evening Bell 5. Pachuco Cadaver 6. When It Blows Its Stacks 7. Carrot Is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond 8. Sugar ‘N Spikes 9. When Big Joan Sets Up 10. Dali’s Car 11. Veteran's Day Poppy 12. Kandy Korn 13. Tropical Hot Dog Night

Personnel: Rob Henke (trumpet); Joe Fiedler (trombone); Phillip Johnston (alto saxophone); Dave Sewelson (baritone saxophone); Gary Lucas (guitar); Jesse Krakow (bass); Richard Dworkin (drums)