Review of Still Light at Night

From Muse’s Muse

I don’t know if something’s in the water or what, but I’ve received some really fine jazz albums in the last month or so. From Montreal’s Bean trio to LA’s Helix Collective (whose music is not exactly jazz, but acoustic and funky, a full band with english horn and flute front and center), there’s a wealth of talent taking jazz and other instrumental genres in new and unexpected and compelling directions.

A prime example of this is the Patricia Julien Project, a Vermont-based quartet that is hard to categorize beyond the rather general rubric of jazz, because they dip into so many different styles—fusion, funk, latin, bop, ballad — but manage all with aplomb and a great deal of musical and compositional acuity. Which is to say, they play the hell out of their tunes, and their tunes are good.

Julien is a nimble, gorgeously musical flutist. I’ve always had a problem with jazz flute. Call me shallow. It can seem somewhat one-dimensional, without the bite and aggression of a sax or trumpet. And yet Pat Julien has come up with a neat trick to sidestep this issue — she often doubles the melody line with guitarist (and husband? brother? cousin? no relation? press pack was mysteriously silent on the subject) Alec Julien, whose signature tone is a grungy, biting, overdriven sound, not ‘jazzy’ at all in the traditional Wes Montgomery sense. But it works well with the flute, and in fact helps make Julien’s flute sound at times like the devil’s own spawn. The combination takes the edge off the harsh guitar sound and gives Pat’s playing a body and menace you don’t often associate with flute. Flute with attitude. Don’t-f***-with-me flute. About time!

Another thing I like about this album are the song titles. Song titles are notoriously tricky in jazz. Evocative titles like “Ruby, My Dear” and “Brilliant Corners” (Thelonious Monk remains the acknowledged master of song-naming) are hard to come by and often sound cutesy or forced. But names like “Sinister Nostalgia”, “Ten Suggestions”, “Proximity”, “Zip Zip” and “Lovely Would Be Nice” have the same sort of mysterious, insouciant charm. And most importantly — the tunes deliver, making Still Light at Night one of the best jazz albums of recent years.

First cut “Sinister Nostalgia” sets the tone with a fly-ass funky drum intro, but on brushes, as if to say, ‘Yeah, I can rock out, but there’s more to us. Check it out.’ Bass slides in unassumingly, and guitar adds odd atmosphere. Then the aforementioned flute/guitar combo give us a melody at once tuneful and yet witholding, with lots of space around it. (I get it! Tuneful yet witholding, not all there: the very definition of nostalgia! It is somewhat sinister, isn’t it?) Then Julien launches into what seems like a solo, all whole notes, with a churning guitar underneath. It appears that most of it is composed, but they make fine use here, as they do throughout the album, of the contrast between Julien’s singing yet full bodied tone and the stylings of guitarist Alec Julien, who sometimes seems like he walked into the session by accident from an Iron Maiden rehearsal across the hall, so muscular and rocking is his guitar sound, but his chops and his tasty backup of Julien’s playing mark him as a player to watch, equal parts Charlie Hunter and Charlie Manson.

The rest of the ensemble is equally impressive. Caleb Bronz’ drumming is understated but firm and always in the pocket, while Jeremy Harlos on bass provides solid support with occasional interesting flights of fancy. His solo on “Zee”, a mysterious, sort of space-latin number, is a bit shy, the guy at the party who knows no one and doesn’t dance, yearning upward but then lingering in the lower reaches of its register, where few bass solos dare to tread — and more should. In “Slo Gin Fizz”, a bluesy, sort of ‘out’ ballad, he provides a more traditional solo, where he also acquits himself admirably. In “Proximity”, a jazzy waltz, Julien has a deferential, downward lilting melody, and after a bass solo, a lovely, exploratory and questing melodic line. Then there’s Mr. Julien, who comes in with a solo as if he just woke up, it seems to take him a few moments to rub the sleep out of his eyes, emerge from his dream and get with the changes, but it’s one that builds nicely as he stretches and explores the landscape. If jazz is a music that creates a soundtrack to how you think, we’re clearly dealing with a band that’s got a lot on it’s mind.

Album concludes with “Zip Zip”, a brusque, hip, two minute Monk-esque statement of bop, followed by the ballad “Lovely Would Be Nice”, Bill Evans-y and indeed lovely, whose sweetly ironic title hides an uabashedly pretty tune. Kinda sums up the Patricia Julien Project — not afraid to be pretty, but watch out. These cats have claws.

Joe Capps is the ostensible producer (recorded, mixed and mastered by) and he’s created a crisp, clear, well-balanced sonic landscape with both depth and presence. If this is the future of jazz, we’re in good hands. Sign me up! Only problem: she forgot to put her website on the album cover. In this day and age, that’s heresy. Or suicide. Or perhaps just sinister nostalgia.

Review of Still Light at Night

From Seven Days

When last we heard from flutist Patricia Julien, she was leading a local supergroup of sorts, Fragile Zoe. That band’s 2010 record, Frame Problem, was a promising, if at times frustrating, exploration of jazz-funk fusion. While the band’s elite pedigree was impressive, the album suffered from a strange listlessness that overshadowed otherwise sparkling performances and compelling compositions.

Julien is back with her own band, the Patricia Julien Project, and a new album, Still Light at Night. The PJP feature a similar lineup to FZ, but the results here vastly outstrip Frame Problem, as the band delivers a heady blend of jazz, swing and even a little prog rock that bristles with playful energy. Oh, yeah, and jazz flute.

The album opens on “Sinster Nostalgia,” penned by Julien’s husband and fellow FZ alum, Alec Julien. The guitarist’s composition lives up to its name, with a doubled electric guitar and flute theme that winds devilishly around a proggy backdrop. The juxtaposition of pure flute tone and fuzzy guitar is initially a little jarring. But as the band settles into a groove, that pairing adds character and intrigue.

Equally intriguing is Patricia Julien’s swinging spy-themed romp, “Brooklyn.” The songs sneaks and struts like a grinning Matt Helm — or maybe Derek Flint — at a cocktail party in the 1960s.

“Joquina,” written by bassist Jeremy Harlos, begins as a brooding, ethereal number with no real time signature or meter. The tune meanders restlessly as flute, guitar and bass jostle for space, never quite finding resolution. It’s the most artistically adventuresome cut on the record.

Alec Julien’s “Ten Suggestions” is next and drastically alters the mood with frantic electric swing that finds the two Juliens alternating flashy, hair-trigger solos over a walking bass line and drummer Caleb Bronz’s insistent beat. Not to be left out of the showy fun, Bronz tosses in a series of quickie drum solos.

“Proximity” is one of the more melodically compelling pieces on the record and finds flute and guitar in perfect union. At times on Still Light, that relationship feels a little antagonistic, with each player vying for attention. But here the Juliens play off each other well, each leaving space for the other to stretch out, and for some excellent solo work by Harlos. That balance holds true on the following cut, “86,” which highlights a feisty Bronz.

Still Light at Night closes with “Lovely Would Be Nice,” a gentle jazz ballad that tugs at the heartstrings and provides a fittingly sweet finish to an intriguing record.