Lawnmower II
Clean Feed CF 298 CD

By Ken Waxman

More than just the second album from this quartet, Lawnmower II marks an almost complete re-orientation of the band, since two of its members are new. Besides founders drummer Luther Gray and alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs, who have always mixed their jazz bona fides with indie rock allusions, 5-string electric violinist Kaethe Hostetter and electric bassist Winston Braman have replaced the quartet’s two guitarists. The changes make Lawnmower II even more appealing than Lawnmower I.

Usually a rocker, Braman’s measured bass lines join with Gray’s unforced percussion to seep under the others’ solos, bringing moderation not heaviness to the seven instant compositions. But it’s Hostetter’s fiddle strategies which resourcefully redefine the program. Versed in so-called classical, free-form and traditional Ethiopian musics, Hostetter’s multifold string texture makes Lawnmower tracks wholly distinctive. At points she sounds as if she’s playing the kraar or Ethiopian lyre; at others like Jerry Goodman soloing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. At the same time her muted yet subtle tone doesn’t replicate Amharic-like sounds any more than the studied laid-back impetus from Gray and Braman forces the tunes to move towards alt-rock.

Instead the defining factor throughout is the modest intersection between fiddle and alto saxophone timbres. With thin split tones that likewise could have arrived from an eastern subcontinent, Hobbs’ agitated vibrations overlap with Hostetter’s strident runs. Pliantly expressed, it’s as if they’ve discovered a new ethnic music which is simultaneously timeless, modest and contemporary.

Probably the most revealing instance of this is “Tiny Wings”. As mood-enhancing as it is mercurial, the architecture of the tune blueprints two parallel duos improvising. With the molasses-slow languor from the bassist’s measured strokes and the drummer’s rolls and strokes preserving the piece’s chromatic motion, the atonality implicit in exaggerated reed cries and triple stopping strings snaps enlivens the piece even as it cements with the others’ strategies.

Pedestrian in both band name and disc title, without fanfare, Lawnmower II masks a profound experiment in interactive fusion among equally respected musical genres.

Tracks: Good Beat; Jumping Off the Bridge; Space Goat; Cartoon; Walk in the Park; Tiny Wings; Ashed

Personnel: Jim Hobbs: alto saxophone; Kaethe Hostetter: 5-string violin; Winston Braman: electric bass; Luther Gray: drums

—For The New York City Jazz Record August 2014