Every now and then I really enjoy a glass of cold orange juice. It’s infrequent enough, though, that whenever I make a jug, it sits in the fridge so long that it separates into its constituent parts, and you can see three distinct layers: pulp, concentrated orange syrup, and water. That’s the difference between mixtures and solutions: a mixture is always just its separate parts, whereas a solution becomes something new and completely different from its original ingredients.
Neal Davis’ debut release, Cross Sections, is definitely a solution. Manned by a small army of musicians in at least three different configurations, there is a real melting pot of styles and influences present, but the end result, while familiar, is new. And it’s exciting. Davis’ personality and voice are clear and distinct, and his musicians seem to subscribe wholeheartedly to his vision.
The opening track, "Starlight for Sigmar Polke" (revolutionary East German Pop Art artist), is like a macabre circus coming to town: strong dark horn arrangements dive from intimation into cacophony, giving way to an argument between a couple of flailing irate ogres that comes to damaging blows. Newcomer Fraser Calhoun holds his own against the monstrous Alex Dean as the ghoulish spectacle climaxes, breaks, and is finally thrown aside by a stampeding herd of angry bull elephants.
Fade to black; spotlight on the centre ring: the title track creeps in with psychotic percussive stringed effects, laying down the base for a free duet between Davis and guitarist Avi Granite which showcases both their ears and their musical chops and tells us a bizarre post-modern fairy tale.
The one standard on the disc, "All Blues," does not take away from the overall shape of the album, and in fact in some ways acts as a bit of a plot twist: carrying the melody, a baby elephant (played energetically on mellophone) flies manically through the scene, intent on finding its lost troupe. The solo is awkward and playful, and finishes with a couple of longish afterthoughts. On tenor, Jon Kay re-focuses the band, playing a few choruses of tasty boppish lines, and Granite follows with a confidently carnivorous rant. Trumpeter Patrice Barbanchon gives a fiery sermon on Zen meditation, and Davis wraps up with a solemn Hadenesque solo that leads back into the restatement of the theme, sending the bewildered pachyderm on its way.
The peak of the album is the introduction of "Hortez the Chihuahua," one of a rare legendary breed of Mexican gunfighter dogs. On soprano, Jon Kay pays homage with slippery lines reminiscent of Steve Grossman and Paul McCandless, and is followed closely by Granite, who plays like a stream carving its way through sand in a downpour. Sounding as Turkish as he does Mexican, Hortez has the vitriolic last word and exits stage left.
For the final act, Davis has chosen a truly breathtaking piece of music: "For Turiya," written by Charlie Haden. The band is in amazing form here, taking this hypnotic hymn of celebration and mourning through stark periods of dark and light, restlessness and peace, sin and contrition. It is a haunting, golden end to the work as a whole.
Epilogue: This may be Neal Davis’ first album, but it will certainly not be his last. It is coherent, focused, colourful, and emotional. There is vision, clarity, and shape to the disc, and Davis shows himself to be a mature, sensitive musician, promising rich things to come.
~ Ben Bowen