Three Faces of Jazz

By Dan Ouellette / November / December 2004
June 14th, 2007

Year of the Snake by Ken Field ’74 and the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble (Innova); Surrender to the Wind by Ben Siems ’90 and the Willie August Project (DiPhoCal Records);and Shade Songs by Elizabeth Woodbury ’90 and Jupiter Circle (

Some diehards like to strap jazz into a blues-and-swing straitjacket. But in fact jazz comes in many colors, flavors, and dialects, from traditional Dixieland to the electronic avant-garde, and defies simplistic categorization. As a music spirited by improvisation, it welcomes influences from all styles and re- creates a state of continual evolution. Three releases by Brown alumni—alto saxophonist Ken Field, electric guitarist Ben Siems, and pianist Elizabeth Woodbury—testify to this rich diversity.

One time zone east of the Big Easy, Field has embraced its spirit and reinterpreted it in a Cambridge-Boston context. His decade-old Revolutionary Snake Ensemble is a rollicking group of horns and drums that delivers a funk-infused twist on the New Orleans second-line marching band tradition. The band’s debut CD, Year of the Snake, captures the abandon of a street parade (case in point: a syncopated jaunt through the public-domain chestnut “Iko Iko”) while expanding its stylistic scope to include a mishmash of musical explorers, from soul godfather James Brown to makossa soul king Manu Dibango and outer-space jazz avant-gardist Sun Ra.

Field is well known in Boston for his art-rock and classical-meets-jazz projects, but the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble is where the saxophonistbandleader gets to dig in, kick back, and gush with party-time euphoria. Year of the Snake opens and closes with Field originals: the buoyant “Parade,” which teems with spanking drums and horn brio, and “I Got It,” a jubilant finale that swings with helixing horns and double-drum glee.

Field and company get down with funk-fired improvisation and effervescent bass grooves on JB’s “Soul Power,” rumble into a chug-a-chug dance pulse with Ra’s “A Call for All Demons,” slide into the rumba zone on the liquid and lyrical “El Choclo,” and re-envision jazz guitarist John Scofield’s “Some Nerve” with skittering drumbeats and exuberant brass interplay. One of the most unusual and appealing tracks is the title tune, where a low-toned trombone choir muses while two drummers and an acoustic bassist lay down a rowdy rhythm. Year of the Snake may have been brewed far from the Crescent City, but it’s got the essential ingredients spiced with fresh flavors befitting the city’s repute as the birthplace of jazz.

With another blend in mind, Ben Siems pilots a curved-road journey on Surrender to the Wind, which features his group, the Willie August Project. In the liner notes, Siems writes that the trio is named for his grandfather Willie August Siems, “who never seemed to grasp social conventions,” and that the band will likewise “keep trying to find our own way.” In this ten-song collection, he only partly succeeds. The gently lilting title track, with guest pianist Laura Caviani, unfortunately calls to mind guitarist Pat Metheny’s light-toned excursions.

Siems breaks rules more successfully when he settles into the reflective realm on such tracks as the enticing, guitar-musing “Andean Fire Circle,” the moving “Lost and Found (Loon Call),” with its eerie, loonlike guitar voicings, and the ruminative “Moonlight and Windows,” which is the slow-paced, blues-inflected sixth movement of the longer piece “Suite for a Dancer.”

In the liner notes, Siems says his trio will “learn to un-belong” to the status quo. One only wishes the easy-flow “Learning to Un-Belong” were more adventurous. But Siems makes up for this lack on the very next track, “Taunting the Duck Squat Impostor,” a tempo-shifting ramble with pockets of improvisational surprise.

On another debut CD, Shade Songs, Elizabeth Woodbury’s Jupiter Circle delves into the chamber-jazz tradition with captivating results. The accent is on grace and beauty, and the influences are Erik Satie, Astor Piazzolla, and Aaron Copland. Pianist-composer Woodbury marries the classical and jazz worlds with aplomb as she enlists strings and reeds to color and add texture to her keyboard wonderings. The collection, inspired by wildfires, births and deaths, and birds flying and strutting their feathery stuff, brims with imaginative work.

Woodbury opens with a six-movement tango based on a Federico García Lorca poem. It sets the pace for the rest of the way by introducing a weave of support instrumentation that complements her lyrical and inquiring piano performance.

My favorites are her shortest pieces, including the whimsical string-and-tabla-fueled “Fugue,” the bouncy “Tinney’s Tip Top,” and the pensive solo-piano mazurka “Zal (sorrow).”

The ebullient finale, “Zurich,” is the only piece not written by Woodbury. Penned by Hermeto Pascoal and introduced to Woodbury by Brazilian pianist Jovino Santos, the tune makes for a bright, festive end to an elegant collection that is highly recommended.

Dan Ouellette is the New York–based jazz columnist for Billboard, a contributing editor to Stereophile, and a longtime DownBeatcontributor and columnist.

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