(138) Will Layman, Pop Matters -- July 2008

friend Joel has said more than once that jazz ought to be more popular
with young folks enamored of indie-rock—“If they want to hear some
creative, independent music that’s out on the edge and grooving, why
aren’t they in the jazz clubs of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn?” Always
seemed like a good question to me.

Todd Sickafoose—a bassist,
composer, and multi-instrumentalist who has been playing and touring
with indie force Ani DiFranco—is plainly on Joel’s wavelength. In Tiny Resistors he
has created a musical document that weds the indie-rock aesthetic to
jazz practices with seamless pleasure. Pop advantages such as genial
melody and rich texture abound. But at the same time the long-form
compositions are challenging and give the players chances to improvise
with personality.

The more listens you give Tiny Resistors,
the harder it is to nail down its method and describe the result of its
stylistic blend. It is not a jazz record made with rock rhythms and
electric instruments—this is no “fusion” effort. Neither is it a pop
record sprinkled with jazz solos or colored by jazz affections such as
a walking bass line. What, then, do I mean when I say that it blends
indie-rock and jazz?

“Bye Bye Bees” is the most plainly “indie”
tune here, with a groove established by straight quarter note
repetitions on guitar, underpinned by syncopated handclaps and a
whirling synth of some kind. Atop this, add the whistling of indie
phenom Andrew Bird and a distant telephone-filtered vocal by
DiFranco—then layer in the horn section and a set of grooved
syncopations on guitar, bass and percussion. It’s no jazz record. While
Alan Ferber gets in a somewhat standard trombone solo amidst the
textural glory, most of the song is an exercise in brilliant
layering—with Sickafoose playing not just bass but also piano, celeste,
and other keyboards as necessary to enrich the sonic stew. It has as
much in common with Philip Glass or Radiohead as it does with Miles
Davis. And it’s a complete pleasure to hear.

The compositions
that follow a more classic “jazz” approach are still easy to
distinguish from traditional jazz. “Pianos of the 9th Ward”, for
example, is a waltz with a clear melody stated in a mournful way by
piano and guitars, then backed by a subtle use of Sickafoose’s small
horn section. The recording features an acoustic bass solo (where the
leader’s training with Charlie Haden is evident) and a statement on
muted trombone by Ferber before the melody returns. The structure,
therefore, is just like a jazz tune, but the feeling is less so. The
deliberate waltz time has a gentle folk quality, and the arrangement
pulls instruments in and out of the mix as if this were a kind of rock
chamber music. “Everyone is Going” fits this mold too—it features a
catchy melody on electric guitar (Adam Levy and Mike Gamble, in tandem)
then reiterated by the horns, all over a stuttering groove in 11/8
time, setting up a ruminative trumpet solo from Shane Endsley that
builds power back into the melody.

The jazz that Tiny Resistors most
resembles is the music of folks like Bill Frisell. Frisell has built a
body of work that begins with jazz but has morphed over the years into
something distinctive and beyond category—a form of American music that
draws in the most catholic way from all the strains of our various folk
musics. And so it is no surprise to discover that Sickafoose has been
rubbing elbows, for example, with violinist Jenny Scheinman and
trumpeter Ron Miles (a frequent Frisell collaborators), with guitarist
Nels Cline (also a musician with one foot in creative jazz and another
in indie-rock with Wilco), or with pianist and composer James Carney.
It’s also no surprise to find this album out on Cryptogramophone
Records, the eclectic home to so many brilliant west coast musicians
who see jazz as their jumping-off point for destinations both further
out and compulsively listenable. Sickafoose was born and educated in
California but has lived in Brooklyn since 2005, and his music has a
freshness one might associate with either place.

The real of joy of Tiny Resistors is
how it banishes the sterility that is sometimes associated with both
precious indie-rock and intellectual jazz. A tune like “Warm Stone”
builds from gut-bucket groove to get increasingly complex as the horns
dig out the dirt over the beat. “Paper Trombones” begins with
Sickafoose’s distinct use of celeste, but the track quickly initiates
an irresistible ride over a heartbeat bassline, with muted horns and
guitar sounding like Ellington-Meets-Zappa. And the title track
rollicks in 6/8 time, allowing Andrew Bird to send his violin in a
lovely arc over the punching horn melody. If these tunes occasionally
get quiet and delicate, then they do so with their edges still showing.

Indeed, the ballad “Whistle” may be the high point of Tiny Resistors.
Simple of melody at first, Sickafoose allows the tune to twist
harmonically to discover itself, and he provides a gentle arrangement
that uses the horns as pure accompaniment and that does not bring in
Bird’s actually whistling until the theme is restated.

Todd Sickafoose has made two previous solo albums, available on iTunes if not easy to find otherwise. Tiny Resistors should lift his name and reputation to the next level. More orchestral and more dazzlingly colored than either Dogs Outside or Blood Orange,
this new disc is a statement of purpose and a call to young listeners,
the very call my friend Joel believes in: Come one, come all!  Come ye
young people and dig some jazz!  It’s the real thing: true independent
music, music with daring and rhythm and guts and melody. And trombones
and soul and barely detectable record sales.

Still, here’s hoping as always for a greater impact and visibility for a musician deserving in the extreme. -by Will Layman

Will Layman
Pop Matters
July 2008