Co-led by saxophonist Philip Johnston and ex-Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, Fast'n'Bulbous somehow makes the jazz adaptation of Beefheart's oeuvre not only possible, but so rich and fun to listen to that you are tempted to smack your forehead and exclaim 'of course!' repeatedly. "Waxed Oop" is the band's second CD and, if the music therein is any indication, these fellows are really getting below the surface of Beefheart's musical constructions to their true essence. What Lucas and Johnson seem to be saying here is that Beefheart's music is not only as distinct and idiosyncratic as that of Albert Ayler, Herbie Nichols, or Thelonious Monk, it is also quite mutable and adaptable - providing the opportunity for valid musical commentary from any number of artists in any number of genres by any number of musical means.
A big part of the success of "Waxed Oop" is the sheer greatness of the band that Johnston and Lucas assembled to play Beefheart's music. Trombonist Joe Fiedler (who told me about this project a year or two ago) is simply one of the finest jazz trombonists out there: one who's completely digested the history of the jazz trombone from Tricky Sam Nanton to Albert Mangelsdorff, and come up with a unique personal style. In Fast'n'Bulbous, Fiedler's devotion to the music transcends any artificially imposed genre boundaries. He's also fully cognizant of trombonist Bruce Fowler's work with Beefheart's 80s-era Magic Band - a fact that impressed me no end. Drummer Richard Dworkin and baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson have worked with Johnston in the Microscopic Septet and other groups for almost three decades. Trumpeter Rob Henke - a new name to me - provides considerable improvisational firepower to the front line, while bassist Jesse Krakow does much more than simply hold down the bottom end. None of these guys try to re-create the sound or feel of the original Magic Band. In fact, the band's overall sound is a bit like that of the Microscopic Septet - compact, tightly executed, with a bobbing, syncopated rockin' rhythmic feel that refers to the 'jump jazz' of pre-Boppers such as Louis Jordan and Earl Bostic more so than the fractured polyrhythms of modern jazz. In retrospect, these preexisting tendencies contribute greatly to the musical and conceptual success of "Waxed Oop."
Though the band's instrumentation and approach is a world or two away from The Magic Band's, long-time fans will instantly recognize many of their beloved Beefheart themes. Gary Lucas' slide guitar is the focal point throughout, which give the band's sound a certain messy, bluesy, unpolished, non-jazz edge that it really needs to get these tunes across. Typically, the horns paraphrase Beefheart's vocal lines, which - if they weren't so unhinged at times - would threaten to homogenize the music a bit too much. But this never really happens. High points are many. 'Smithsonian Institute Blues' sounds like Sun Ra covering a lost Herbie Nichols piece, with Fiedler's trombone way out front. The rubato fanfare before the final chorus of 'Trust Us' is really effective, as is the ensuing collective improv over the throbbing rock rhythm. The urgent, densely constructed 'Ice Rose' sounds like Beefheart re-imagined through the eyes of Philip Glass. While 'Woe-Is-A-Me-Bop' gets a very groovy New Orleans second line treatment, Lucas totally gets his rocks off on a hard rockin' power trio medley of 'Click Clack' and 'Ice Cream for Crow.' The unexpectedly sweet and wistful 'Blabber and Smoke' sounds a bit like the bluesy jam that the Saturday Night Live Band does at the end of the show.
This is one excellent CD that will find its way into the heart of pretty much any Beefheart fan with a penchant for jazz, as well as many a adventurous jazz fan who isn't all that familiar with the Captain's music.