A mysterious blend of jazz and chamber music brings together the visceral power of Charles Mingus and the sparse textures of Steve Reich through original compositions and improvised pieces - producing sounds that are intriguing, energetic, and positive.
A new line-up, a new album, a new label: The second release from the Fantastic Merlins represents something of a new beginning for the band. So perhaps reintroductions are in order.
NOT THAT MAGICIAN
Let’s begin at the beginning and clear up any misconceptions about the name. Nope, The Fantastic Merlins weren’t mooning over the sorcerer in King Arthur’s court when they named themselves. Instead they plucked the phrase from a poem by Spanish surrealist Federico Garcia Lorca. Here’s the opening stanza of “Procession”:
From the alley came
From what field,
From which mythic grove?
Nearer to hand,
They resemble astronomers.
And the Ecce Homo.
As their music reveals, it’s a fitting choice - modernist, playful, and spiked with inviting hints of mystery.
GIVE THE DRUMMERS SOME
Original drummer and composer Federico Ughi left the band last year when his relocation to Rome made collaborating with the Minneapolis-based Merlins too impractical. “Federico places a huge emphasis on freedom of expression in his playing and interpretation of the music,” says bassist Brian Roessler. “It really helped establish the personality and sound of the band.”
Enter new drummer Peter Henning, whose style is more rooted in groove-oriented playing. The band credits him with bringing greater clarity to their arrangements and his compositions have been crucial additions as well. It’s no accident his “Inversion is the Condition,” a brooding mix of beauty and menace, kicks off the album. Henning’s presence represents a subtle reshuffling of the band’s sensibility.
THE BENEFIT OF SECOND THOUGHTS
A Handful of Earth has been gestating for a couple of years; the band even recorded a version before Ughi left. Reworking songs over a long period often results in fussy and stillborn music, but it’s obvious the Merlins benefited from the opportunity to rethink and reshape this body of work with a new member and handful of fresh compositions. “Our goal was to become simultaneously more cohesive and wide-ranging,” says cellist Jacqueline Ultan. Instead of a mere follow-up to their acclaimed debut, they’ve delivered a decisive artistic leap forwards.
“This collection of songs demanded something more straightforward in terms of the sounds and approach,” says saxophonist Nathan Henson. Sure enough, A Handful of Earth is less frenetically dissonant. Without sacrificing their adventurous spirit, the Merlins have tactically embraced simplicity and outright lyricism. They’ve opened their blend of jazz, classical, and improv to more possibilities in order to deliver memorable surprises like the gorgeous coda that emerges from the unresolved undercurrents of “Short Time.”
WHAT YOU’RE LISTENING TO WHEN YOU LISTEN TO THE ALBUM
“Purple Orange”: Gentle percolations that patiently build to a roiling climax. * “Face in the Window”: Unabashed beauty, featuring a melody worthy of a secular doxology. * “Stolen”: Adrenalized car-chase pace meets keening lyricism. * “More Than Water”: Mournful lament of deceptive simplicity. * “Innana”: Atmospheric tone poem evoking the procession of a stately thunderstorm. * “Handful of Earth”: Dramatic theme fueled by propulsive rhythms and solos. * “Bottles & Cans”: A dance between exuberantly coiled melody and buzzing ambiance. * “Done for Now”: Meditative tones prodded by insistent minimalist repetitions.
DRAW YOUR OWN MAP
These notes aren’t an atlas of the album’s musical territories, but a quick sketch of its basic compass points. Discovery is key to the Merlins’ music. Their tunes subvert the soul-crushing cliché of the head-solos-head structure in favor of thrilling digressions and breakdowns, offering pleasures in unexpected places. A Handful of Dust promises a procession of fantastical alleys, fields, and groves awaiting your exploration.
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Jeff Jackson is co-proprietor of www.destination-out.com, a web site celebrating adventurous jazz.