The first thing I noticed about "The Tortoise" by Rob Mosher and Storytime, besides its lovely cover art, was the CD's credits - they have the look of a movie poster or lobby card. I am convinced that this is intentional, as Mosher's thoughtful, moody jazz-based music certainly has the image-conjuring sweep and emotional density of a movie soundtrack. Only, it's better than most soundtracks. Frankly, music this good cannot stay in the background!
Rob Mosher, a young multi-reed player and composer who hails from Canada, plays two instruments rarely heard in jazz: oboe and English horn. His intricate, stylistically varied compositions are brought to life by his hand-picked group, Storytime, which has a somewhat unusual piano-less instrumentation. The entire reed section doubles on clarinets, and the brass is decidedly skewed in favor of the more mellow varieties: trombone, French horn, and flügelhorn. Mosher's arrangements brought to my mind the groundbreaking work of the legendary arranger / composer Gil Evans. A cursory listen to "The Tortoise" bears this out, as Mosher demonstrates a similar inclination for gauzy, misty harmonies, moderate tempos, and melodies sketched using unusual combinations of instruments.
Yet, "The Tortoise" is not the sort of CD that sweeps you off your feet with exotic genre-defying fusions or brash displays of instrumental virtuosity (though it certainly has its share of both). Mosher's music is inherently understated and crafty, and it took me a few listens before I started to really appreciate it. His 10 piece band is full of unique, if little-known, musical personalities and he has composed several of the tunes with specific members in mind. The sly humor displayed throughout the CD - check Mosher's use of Nir Felder's bottleneck slide guitar on the enchanting 'Twilight,' and his goofy countdown for 'Joy' a 7/4 funk tune - reminds me of Carla Bley. Mosher's penchant for folksy, listener-friendly melodies and loping rock-based rhythms had me thinking about some of Bill Frisell's work - particularly his "This Land" project from the early 1990s.
Mosher's music is not just about jazz, either. Several tunes, particularly 'What Snowflakes Are Plotting,' 'The Tall Tales of Todd Toven,' and '1920's Car Chase,' are quirkily reminiscent of the music you might hear in kid's movie - think 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', or perhaps another one of Tim Burton's other, more spooky features. Several other pieces - 'Sleepless Lullaby,' 'Jupiter,' 'The Forgotten,' and 'Farewell, Goodbye' - de-emphasize jazz-based improvisation to various extents in favor of sharply focused ensemble statements and mood-setting atmospherics. Here, Mosher unabashedly draws some of his inspiration from 20th Century symphonic classical music - after all, he name checks Debussy, Ravel, Ligeti and others in his liner notes. Yet, unlike the 'Third Stream' experiments of the 60s, Mosher's fusion of concert music and jazz is soulful, unforced, and natural.