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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Waxwing - A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists (Songlines, 2015) *****

By Derek Stone

The title of Waxwing’s new album might seem a bit obtuse, but once its origins are known, it reveals itself to be simultaneously illuminating and heartbreaking. Ross Taggart, a saxophonist/pianist in the Vancouver jazz scene, was dying of cancer - laid up in the hospital, half-awake, and likely under the influence of a large number of painkillers, Taggart might not have been in the most lucid state-of-mind. Thus, when a visiting friend asked him what he needed, he gave the following cryptic response: “a bowl of sixty taxidermists” (Read the whole story here). That phrase, with its twin evocations of absurdity and poignant sadness, is perhaps the best representation of what this album manages to do. As well as being a dedication to Taggart, it’s a meditation on life, loss, and the mysteries that inhabit both. Waxwing consists of only three musicians: Jon Bentley on saxophone, Peggy Lee on cello, and Tony Wilson on electric guitar. While some might suppose that such an arrangement allows for only a limited range of possibilities, Waxwing dispel that notion with ease - A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists is a rich, multi-faceted work, and it’s an unmitigated success.

The first track, “A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists,” immediately demonstrates the fine interplay between these three musicians: over Wilson’s simple, spiky pattern, Lee and Bentley lay out a winding, sinuous motif that is given dramatic weight by the guitar’s minor-key chording. It’s a striking composition, but it doesn’t necessarily dictate the direction the album will take - the next piece, “For Ross,” is melancholic, meditative, and achingly lovely, and its structure is much more conventional, Bentley’s saxophone producing an exquisite, emotive stream of notes. One of the joys of this record is the way in which the players juggle sentiment and style. Given the album’s subject matter and dedications (to both Taggart and Claude Ranger, who disappeared in 2000), it would have been incredibly easy for it to become a schmaltzy mess. It’s to the credit of all the players involved, however, that it didn’t; the emotional moments are tucked in the folds of the album like glittering jewels, and they are brought forward sparingly and delicately. In other words, we don’t get beat over the head repeatedly with heart-rending themes and histrionics - the emotions here are unaffected, authentic, and they are all the more effective for that reason.

There are many things to love about this album, but one of them is its wide array of styles and moods. While there is definitely cohesion between the individual pieces, there’s also the sense that each composition is incredibly distinctive, revealing something special and unrepeatable. Take “Clementine,” for example: it’s an old traditional, and many of us have probably heard the tune a thousand times or more, but this particular version locates a heart of sorrow in the central melody. It’s possibly the most moving moment on the record, if only because the players have taken something a bit stale and breathed new life into it, transforming it into a devastating lullaby in the process.
Waxwing aren’t afraid to branch out into more abstract modes, either.  Pieces like “Snow Blind” illustrate what happens when the group works together in a more improvised setting. Peggy Lee and Jon Bentley offer hesitant, sputtering notes, and guitarist Wilson snakes along menacingly in the background. “Dune” is an expertly-constructed sonic landscape, and it conjures up the world that its title suggests: desolate stretches of desert, shriveled plants, and the sucking-in of scorched air. After a feverish, dream-like introduction, cellist Lee provides the austere back-bone for the piece; Bentley and Wilson soon join her in creating an exotic, expressive sound-sculpture.       

A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists is a treasure-trove of melody, emotion, and masterful musicianship, and I truly believe that there’s something here for everyone. This is bold, exciting, fervent, often daring, but always eminently listenable jazz - do yourselves a favor and pick up a copy soon!


Colin Green said...

Enjoyed the review.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this wonderful review. Now to find a copy. :>)

Anonymous said...

It's available at the Downtown Music Gallery

Richard said...

Really nice review, Derek!

Waxwing is playing our Jazz Festival (Ottawa) this year,
so now I'm even happier to be seeing them.

Martin Schray said...

Thanks for making me aware of this album, Derek. I'll have to find a copy. Very good review.