Curious Melodies from the Lost Travel Diaries of Sir Albus Manchild takes the art of the concept record to a whole new level. The latest project by the Beston Barnett Quartet is allegedly based on historical documents discovered in a trunk in Barnett’s grandmother’s attic. After poring over the eccentric globe-trotting Victorian composer’s writings for a year, Barnett chose to present ten of his musical fragments in a small combo jazz format. Why not?
Beston Barnett is a self-styled guitarist who was raised in Nashville, but has traveled extensively. Though Curious Melodies from the Lost Travel Diaries of Sir Albus Manchild, is his first official jazz release, he has a prolific background in rock, hip-hop, and diverse roots music. In various interviews, he claims to play practically every instrument including ethnic ones from his time spent in Brazil, Africa, and Europe. Django Reinhardt is Barnett’s most obvious hero; he even named his first-born son after the famed gypsy guitarist. Given the bizarre nature of Barnett’s fiercely independent projects, it’s difficult to discern fact from fiction.
This imaginative exercise goes a long way to excuse diverse styles that are, figuratively at least, all over the map. Barnett plays guitar masterfully. Soprano sax-man "Schwee" Michael Schartz (also of Critical Brass) adds a definite other-worldly sound. The question that remains is whether the compositions would be nearly as compelling on their own, without gimmicks. With a concept this austere, the answer is inevitably no.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. The straight-forward arrangements are fine, even good in spots, but there’s very little improvisation. Or maybe they were improvising, but it never quite took off. Despite the quartet’s over-the-top intentions, listeners are left with an amateur impression. The project lacks the brilliance and command you’d expect from veteran jazz musicians.
Sure, jazz is entrenched with tradition, much of which is too strictly enforced. And sure, it can be said jazz fans take everything too seriously. But still, it's hard to imagine anyone taking Beston Barnett's latest project seriously. And it’s not that we can’t take a joke. It’s that any joke gets old in less time than a ten song CD.
In most fields, and especially jazz, the accepted practice involves learning the rules and playing by them, before striking out in new directions. Curious Melodies from the Lost Travel Diaries of Sir Albus Manchild has to be one of the most preposterous debuts ever. You gotta hand it to the man, he’s got chops, and he’s got balls. Still, it's hard to imagine where Barnett could go from here. Maybe that’s just the way he wants it.
Each track is preceded with narration from Sir Manchild’s diaries. Unfortunately, the performances are not prodigious enough to offset this pretentious effect. If the songs really sounded like they came from different parts of the world, Barnett’s ambitious project might have worked.
Here’s hoping Beston Barnett learned enough from Sir Albus Manchild to channel him more subtly next time. With less concept and more musicality, his next outing could be pure genius.