On Clockhead Goes to Camp, multi-instrumentalist and composer Daniel Bennett took listeners on a storybook journey. But if that 2013 album was a Spirograph drawing, this 2015 follow-up is a Spin Art extravaganza. The Mystery at Clown Castle brings to fruition a reimagined lineup, situating the bandleader (who capably switches between alto saxophone, flute, piccolo, oboe, clarinet, and piano) among the fresh aliliance of guitarist Nat Janoff, bassist Eddy Khaimovich, and drummer Matthew Feick.
The present cast of characters is no less eclectic than the former, and guides the project along fruitful avenues of ingenuity. The roster change, as made clear in an e-mail interview, is in no way the result of creative differences, but instead born of the need for a touring band. “I never burn bridges,” Bennett assures. “My musicians are like family to me.” Bennett in fact continues to work with his Clockhead musicians on a regular basis, but has taken to test-driving newer associates through his monthly residency at Tomi Jazz in midtown Manhattan. The vibes honed on Tomi’s stage pay their dividends in the studio, where the band’s unities, but also its lively fragmentations, acquire full expressive reign.
Although Mystery feels like a continuation or companion of Clockhead, it’s also very much its own animal—or should I say animals, because the set list is populated with them. “Paul Platypus” is the first of an evocative menagerie and finds the band firing on all cylinders. It’s also a mighty fine vehicle for Khaimovich, who Bennett calls “one of the busiest bass players in New York City” and who encouraged the bandleader to make use of electric bass for the first time. The instrument adds tactile shading here (and subtlety to the nocturnal carnivalesque that is “The Spinning Top Stood Still”), while fleshing out the lower spectrum beyond Janoff’s six singing strings.
The flute-led “Nine Piglets” is reprised from its last appearance on Clockhead in a fully reinvigorated arrangement. This radio-friendly tune, one of the band’s most requested, discloses Bennett’s overtly pop influences, which peek their heads above water on “Strange Jim And The Zebra” and “Uncle Muskrat.” The latter boasts the talents of pianist Jason Yeager, a prolific sideman whose backyard jam session chops lend further delights to two freely improvised tracks.
The album’s nonhuman considerations come at us like a stampede in the spoken poetry of Britt Melewski, who in “Morning” shouts, “What animal are you?” It’s a profound, if tongue-in-cheek, question to consider in such a whimsical musical universe, the answer to which can only be articulated in melodies without words. Such contrasts take to higher altitudes in his creepily auto-tuned “Minor Leaguer,” beneath which oboe and guitar lay down a beautiful stage.
Opener “The Clown Chemist” is duly representative of Bennett’s style. Technically proficient yet full of sparkle and personality, its circularity opens the way for creative ornamentation. As throughout the album, the melody is primary, as attested by the fact that Bennett composes first at the guitar, as one would a song, before transferring to his lead of choice. Mystery is likewise recorded like an indie band. Producer MP Kuo does little to mask the band’s live sound, which breathes through tracks like “Flow” with cinematic clarity. When I asked Bennett about his nonmusical influences, his response was as multifarious as his music:
“You’re going to laugh, but I really love formulaic television shows from the 1980s. I love the ‘good guy vs. bad guy’ plots. And the good guy always wins. That’s the way it should be! There’s too much cynicism in this world. So I do it my way. I don’t follow jazz trends and I don’t push any political agenda with my music. I just want to make people feel good. I am on this earth to be a servant to others. A wise man once told me, ‘Worship God and serve the people.’”
It’s a fine philosophy to follow for a group just voted “Best New Jazz Group” in 2015 by Hot House Jazz Guide and, with another album already recorded, these cats are on their way to making the future of jazz that much brighter.
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