April 11, 2011

Flat Earth Society -the Armstrong mutations

"Louis Armstrong is viewed by many as the single most important figure
 in the history of jazz,introducing the world to the vocabulary of jazz soloing
and the effortless rhythms of swing.
 Indeed, various aspects of his artistic persona -- from his earliest sides with King Oliver
 in the '20s through his later hits like &"Hello Dolly" and &"What a Wonderful World" in the '60s -
- had a tremendous influence not only on jazz but on a wide range of pop music as well.
Any attempt at an Armstrong homage therefore has a huge legacy to confront,
 and is a risky proposition bound to court controversy and engender criticism
 from those who would believe there is a "correct" way to honor an artist
with such a towering reputation."
Well, the Belgian big band Flat Earth Society proves that there is indeed a correct way
 to tackle an Armstrong homage,
 and that is to throw the idea of "correct" completely out the window.
 With The Armstrong Mutations, FES examines Armstrong's music," but also his life, 
in all its conflicted glory.
 Peter Vermeersch and company seemingly acknowledge that Armstrong 
is seen largely as an amiable, entertaining personality (particularly by his later mainstream pop audience unfamiliar with his groundbreaking early King Oliver, Hot Five, Hot Seven, and big band music), 
but also that his life was filled with struggle, not only in battles to overcome poverty and racism,
 but also in his balancing act between groundbreaking artistry and commercial acceptance.
 The Armstrong Mutations somehow manages to touch upon all of that while,
 like Armstrong himself, remaining supremely entertaining from start to finish. 
Since the FES ensemble is an 18-piece big band, 
Armstrong's big band legacy naturally takes precedence from a strictly musical perspective,
 although the titles covered range from the beginning of the trumpeter's career
 (&"St. Louis Blues") through to the era that brought listeners &"What a Wonderful World,"
 while touching on Ellington and Gershwin along the way.
 There are plenty of driving, swinging, and rocking full-ensemble charts
 that are literally thrilling in the skill of their execution,
 but given the group's roots in the Belgian avant-garde and jazz-rock scene,
 don't be surprised to hear an occasional spoken word voice-over, heavy metal crunch in the guitar, 
or an interlude bordering on pure sound collage. 
The recording begins with humor (&"Spooks!") and ends with a requiem and final celebration 
in the style of a New Orleans funeral procession (&"Funeral & Binche"),
 and in between one hears everything from pounding tribal rhythms
 and the vitriolic vocal of Tom Wouters in &"(Little) King Ink" 
(a likely reference to Armstrong's crowning as King Zulu during the 1949 New Orleans Mardi Gras parade) to the singsong delivery of vocalist Anja Kowalski in &"What a Wonderful World." 
The latter tune seems sweet and naïve in isolation but ironic when placed
 in the context of the other music on the disc, and this apparent irony 
is reinforced by a snippet from the U.S. National Anthem that surfaces at the end. 
But finally, Armstrong's art becomes a gift to music lovers the world over,
 from New Orleans to Binche, 
and these Belgians are as skilled as anyone in expressing their love of the man,
 his music, and his legacy.
Dave Lynch, Rovi


stefaan blancke: trombone
benjamin boutreur: saxophones
david bovée: guitar
leonaar de graeve: tuba
anja kowalski: vocals & keyboards
pieter lamotte: bass trombone
bart maris: trumpet
michel mast: saxophones
marc meeuwissen: trombone
eric morel: saxophones
kristof roseeuw: upright bass
peter vandenberghe: keyboards
danny van hoeck: percussion
luc van lieshout: trumpet
teun verbruggen: percussion
peter vermeersch: clarinet
wim willaert: accordion & vocals
tom wouters: clarinet, xylophone & vocals

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