"The album is a revelation from begining to end."
- Kent Nicholson of TheatreWorks and Crowded Fire
ALBUM REVIEW by Dave Kostiuk:
Life After 339 by Panthelion - Dvorzak, 2007
I figured it out on my third listen. Well, I should have already known, as Andrew Currier already told me in a previous interview that he is trying to create “a new body of standards” with his solo debut, Life After 339. When he initially said this, I though to myself: good, another young musician in the Bay Area trying to make a difference. But after repeated listens to his record, the true significance of this “body of standards” idea came to light. Like great tunes of yesteryear, such as “Take the A Train,” or “So What,” or “Goodbye Pork-pie Hat,” Currier’s compositions are catchy and memorable. That’s it; that’s the basic formula for all great music, be it Bach or Chuck Berry. And Life After 339 has got this going on in a major way.
With much thanks to the aforementioned infectiousness, this entirely original album is relevant and vibrant, rather than retro and vacuous. Once more, performance and production-wise, the level of Life After 339’s artistic execution is highly professional and pristine. This fundamental aspect perpetuates the music’s twenty-first century validity without compromising its earthy, head-bobbing, and succulent flavor. With learned, tasteful abandon, composer, conceptualizer, and producer Currier also serves as the album’s aural axis – specifically, as standup bassist and pianist. And although the album is tinged with bebop and tropical grooves, its instrumental line-up somewhat recalls that of jazz’s “cool” period, with drumkit, tenor sax, and muted trumpets flowing throughout, as well as vibraphones and strings. However, in the songs with strings, these classical sounds seem to inform each respective piece rather than sprinkle them.
The album kicks off solidly with “Blue at Midnight.” Though highly melancholic, (as much of the songs are), this tune immediately establishes a solid, driving, hummable melody in the form of Currier’s piano and bass. The singalong quality is expanded upon via a wonderful conversation between the tenor sax of Bay Area session legend Charles McNeal and trumpeter Rob Dehlinger. But a true star of this selection is accomplished Middle Eastern percussionist Vince Delgado, with his sublime and richly recorded textures that seem to best signify Currier’s intended ethereal and supernatural overtones. Delgado’s cryptic blend of jazzy and North Indian tips and taps best indicate the concept of an earthly muse (339 Taylor) leading the self to unearthly places.
“This is It” follows in very much the same vein as the previous track, with an emphasis on space, warmth, and pronounced melodies. Here, Delgado’s forceful yet watery percussionisms are supported by drummer Dave Tweedy, a San Francisco-based rock producer. Delgado’s contributions are countermelodic, and the effect is moody and introspective. This time McNeal is joined by Ara Anderson on trumpet, another S.F. talent whose accomplishments include two albums with Tom Waits. However, here the horns are more subservient to the thick chord changes of Currier’s four-string and keys than on the previous cut. Nonetheless, both “Blue at Midnight” and “This is It” function as short but sweet introductory themes, effective appetizers when part of the album as a whole, yet substantial and classic-sounding when considered as separate pieces on their own. Not a small feat when you consider the fact that this album (gasp!) does not employ the alleged wonders of Pro Tools or non-acoustic instrumentation.
Though the artistic vision remains logically consistent, the subsequent track “Kaplice (Remix)” revs the album up to a higher gear. Here we are reminded that fine art should also be funky and fun, and much of this lesson is present with thanks to drummer Babatunde Lee. In fact Lee - who has played with such greats as McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, and Bill Summers of the Headhunters - says himself: “the one thing that I’m really sure of about my playing is that I can call the ghosts.” No doubt, as Lee’s fluttery brush work abruptly morphs into thundering and thunking stick slaps that shout “BOO!” upside your head. At the songs open, Currier establishes a jovial, mid-tempo latin groove on the piano, and then enters the song proper with a tough bass line that could/should be sampled by A Tribe Called Quest or even the Wu Tang Clan. Slightly contemporary hip-hop references aside, the upright work is smooth but pushing, with a swang that the muted trumpet literally dances upon. This horn represents a killer performance by Mike Olmos of Mingus Amungus and the Realistic Orchestra, recorded here alongside frequent bandmate Doug Rowan on tenor sax. But it is Babatunde Lee who truly takes us outside, closing the tune with an emphatic drum solo, one that is aggressively African yet jarringly present in the mix a la Led Zeppelin.
Another personal favorite of mine is the bebop frenzy turned tango tastiness simply titled “Ink.” The floor-cutting quickness of Currier’s bass brings the best out of all three percussion performances on this track: the earthy, standout stank of Babatunde Lee, the crucial contributions of Vince Delgado, and the gentle fury of jazz festival veteran, vibraphonist Tommy Kesecker. Oddly enough, during the song’s first half, the horns seem to hold the center together more so than the remaining instruments, which dart and dance across the soundscape. But when the song briefly digresses into a stricter, slower-paced Latin pulse, it is the horns that venture outside to play. Moreover, “Ink” is our first taste of Currier’s easy-to-follow yet inventive compositional sophistry. In just five minutes plus, the song is comprised of two distinct movements, and these deft thematic shifts complement the musical fun as a whole rather than give it an academic snootyness. We actually go on a trip rather than merely eavesdrop on a jam session. In addition, props are due to the vibrant, ringing drum tuning on the long fill Lee plays as a segue to the second “scene” of the piece; this grimy grit is all the more striking next to the cleaner portions of the track.
At this juncture the disc plunges into the depths of poignant melancholy, though the aural effect is more dynamite than depression. Originally intended as a tribute to the legendary San Franciscan nightclub on 339 Taylor street, “Goodbye 339 (Thunders)” clearly serves as the album’s spiritual axis. If the previous four tracks represent business as usual, (of course according to Currier’s eclectic logic), then “Goodbye” is our first indication that there is some sort of disturbance in the force. This multi-movement piece starts out with an erratic yet subdued lament that somewhat invokes Rahsaan Roland Kirk merged with Waits. Vince Delgado and Babatunde Lee provide erratic but bouncy tonal colors, both players again treating us to some poignant atmospheric and thematic colors. Anderson and McNeal stretch out with some particularly emphatic and erratic lines; McNeal in particular gets down with some highly expressive, crying sax work. This culminates into a catchy, foreboding refrain: “dah doo dah, dah doo dah…”
As the track continues, it becomes all the more evident that Currier’s expanding reputation as a skilled and interesting composer will be all the more solidified. The song segues into reflective and diligent piano break, one that climbs and reaches towards starry skies. Once this resolves, we get into a slightly more even groove, though the percussion is still played with intense gestures. The bass completes the scene, making the complete picture seem like some sort of funky tango. However, the truly supernatural element of this piece is the extraterrestrial ballet that is the contributions of Randall Weiss on violin, and Natasha Vershilova on viola. Weiss’ accomplishments include being assistant concertmaster for the San Jose Symphony for seventeen years, and Vershilova frequently performs with the Russian Chamber Orchestra, as well as the San Francisco Opera. The strings execute fine expression, providing their own rare and organic musical moment. Also worth mention is yet another inventive and slamming solo from Lee. All in all, “Goodbye” should prove to be a cult classic.
The album closer, “Duso Moja: It’s all Bad,” is aptly placed as the album’s final statement. The song begins with dramatic piano tinkling and a hint of Spanish flavor from a trumpet hook by Anderson, the latter worthy of an Academy awarded film score. Indeed, the main chord structure and melody of this piece is as hum-along-worthy as it is moving. The track’s prominent classical foundation is then firmly established by a passage of haunting strings which includes violinist Rick Shinozaki, of the Del Sol string quartet out of San Francisco, and violist Eric Golub, a nearly thirty-year vet of Larry Vuckovich’s Blue Balkan Ensemble. This is followed by a reaffirming of the piece’s major hook, embellished with cool jazz dexterity by McNeal on tenor sax. All of the aforementioned is colored and contained nicely by Currier’s piano and bass work, as well as the careful brush strokes of Lee, who shows quite clearly that he only pounds when necessary. Subsequently, the most impressive element of this cut arrives: the daring and effective use of extended silence. The music dissipates then disappears completely, yet hangs the listener up with no true closure for a full minute and forty seconds. Then sound reenters this deserted landscape in the form of a wonderful voice accompanied solely by Currier on keys. This pretty and impressive but short and sweet coda features the succulent singing of Milla Milojkovic, an accomplished San Franciscan jazz vocalist. This sparse epilogue is striking, as it features the only vocal performance on the entire disc. Sultry and warm, this enigmatic reprise inspires the listener to start the album over from the beginning, as it suggests that perhaps we have missed a question that “Duso Moja” answers.
All told, the classy but killer piece of artwork known as Life After 339 is a must hear for anyone looking for something memorable, entertaining, and interesting. And as all six tracks are pulled from the thirteen pieces featured in Currier’s original songbook, Music For Improvisation: Opus Ten, one could only hope that the man will record the remaining seven songs. If not, we can at least trust that Panthelion will continue to traverse such ambitious and vital aural terrain in the future. Once he establishes a larger body of work, this daring but sophisticated artist will be capable of inspiring a new musical movement. From what this author understands, Currier is already on his way, as the stage show for this album is intended to be theatrical and interactive - a far cry from some sort of stiff musical museum. But exciting stage show notwithstanding, the timelessness of the recording Life After 339 signifies its considerate and enthusiastic relationship with The Future - as well as the past.
Currier shares his talents with projects such as Luna Groove, Taaraka, Hip Bones, Larry Vuckovich, Babatunde Lea and other influential musicians in the community. He has also shared the stage with well-known acts such as india.irie, Ozomatli, Blackalicious, Ani DeFranco. Currier has performed at various music festivals including Earthdance, Lighting in the Bottle, and High Sierra.