First I want to clear up a possible confusion—it confused me at least—regarding L'histoire du Clochard (The Bum's Tale). This is not a jazz version of Stravinsky's "L'histoire du soldat". The connection between the two works is simply the instrumentation, and there are significant differences even there. Arranger Ohad Talmor has dropped a percussionist and substituted his own tenor saxophone for bassoon, and the bass part is provided by the sextet's co-leader Steve Swallow playing his characteristically singing fretless electric bass. Talmor arranges seven Swallow originals for this chamber jazz sextet in a manner that evokes the 1950s cool school. Those who love that sound with its blend of understated swing and wash of orchestral color should not pass up this session. But those with an aversion to that sound shouldn't pass it up either—Talmor's skill as a writer and the striking ensemble and improvisational skills of the sextet are likely to win their approval.
The notion of chamber jazz elicits images of a soft-spoken and almost fey sound. While this music does speak quietly for the most part, the articulation is also firm and unwavering. Talmor knows the effects he's reaching for, and the musicians—Russ Johnson, trumpet, Meg Okura, violin, Greg Tardy, clarinet, and Jacob Garchik, trombone—are unstinting in their efforts to do justice to his charts. The musicians' attention to the subtleties of the music—their control of dynamics and their ear for blending—is on par with any classical chamber ensemble. There's not a moment here that's not suffused with color, whether it be on the opening "Making Ends Meet" with Garchik's whale grunt wah-wah buttressing an exchange between clarinet and violin, or the pointillistic passage on "Hullo Bolinas" where each instrument ranges high to provide the dots that complete the harmonies. Or it could just as well be Talmor's horn alone beginning "Sweeping Up" by quoting the opening bassoon melody from Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring".
As an arranger, Talmor makes good use of Swallow's bass, one of the most distinctive tones in jazz. Having this tribute to Swallow and then isolating him as the only rhythm player seems at first glance like throwing a party for someone and expecting the honoree to do all the cooking. But Swallow's bass is used more as a bass guitar, working on the same footing as the other five instruments as they weave together a tapestry of melody. Talmor has a finely tuned sense of orchestration; he knows how to elicit the most piquant tones from each instrument and then layer them for the most telling effect. He is second to none as a contemporary writer in understanding how to put together instrumental voices.
In true chamber music fashion, melodic phrases are often handed from one instrument to the other, requiring musicians to match shading. The improvisations spring organically from the ensembles, flowing naturally from and to the written lines. Talmor's saxophone and Tardy's clarinet make the greatest impact, but if anything this session challenges the jazz prejudice for blowing over ensemble playing and eschews traditional heads-solos construction. Okura shines with a tone bold enough to hold its own amidst all these horns and Garchik's part requires him to range from the bottom to the top of his horn—always seeming perfectly at ease. The session lacks for variety in tempo—everything is medium to slow. Yet that seeming shortcoming just means it's easier for the listener to savor the rich instrumental textures.
I could go on and cite examples from each of the seven tracks (also including "Chelsea Bells", "Some Echoes", "Ladies in Mercedes", and "I'm Your Pal") but that would have had me scribbling throughout the disc and missing some of the music. I'd rather savor every sound, as will other listeners who fancy well-constructed small ensemble dates. - David Dupont