By: Ron Schepper, Textura

After attending a 2018 Macbeth performance whose mise-en-scène included a smoky bar and recordings of crooners singing old standards, New York saxophonist Ben Flocks was inspired to handpick a dozen classics and recast them in similarly fresh and evocative manner. Issued on his own West Cliff Records label, Mask of the Muse sounds both classic and contemporary, a suite of American songs from another time fashioned for today. Romance and mystery ooze from the melody-rich selections, with Flocks’ husky tenor and soprano deepening the night-time feel every step of the way.

Joined by guitarist Ari Chersky (also the album producer), keyboardist Frank LoCrasto (piano, organ, Rhodes, mellotron, etc.), upright bassist Martin Nevin, and drummer Evan Hughes, Flocks augmented tunes by Johnny Mercer (“Dream”), Robert Maxwell (“Ebb Tide”), and others with two of his own and a pair by Chersky. Some songs carry with them associations—Billie Holiday with “Dream of Life,” for example—but they largely fall by the wayside as the recording plays, so reimagined are they by Flocks and company. With the leader’s luxuriant, soulful horn and his bandmates’ luscious backdrops enveloping the listener, it’s easy to forget other artists made the songs famous. A retro-futuristic spirit permeates the set, the material both conveying a bold cinematic quality and an intimacy characteristic of a small nightclub.

Chersky’s sultry “Muse’s Mask” sets the romantic scene with a slow tempo and Flocks’ warm tenor singing the melody, the others supporting him with a blues-drenched backing. He divests Mercer’s “Dream” of its Roy Orbison connection with a straight-up reading whose languour’s deepened by steel guitar-like shadings and brushed drumming. Here and elsewhere, the leader introduces the tune with a largely unembellished voicing of the melody before serving up an extended solo that while liberated from the melody still stays within its orbit. His command of phrasing, tempo, and dynamics makes listening to his playing one of the album’s primary pleasures. And though there’s much of it to sample when Flocks solos on every track, he, like his bandmates, doesn’t overplay. The others solo so rarely, in fact, their turns stand out even more noticeably when they happen, the one by Chersky in the bluesy “Smoke Rings” a memorable example.

As central as Flocks’ horn is to the album, the playing of the others is as critical to its effect. Hear, for instance, during “Ebb Tide” how much Chersky’s chords and LoCrasto’s keyboard textures add to the music’s splendour. His organ also warms the fire of “Dream of Life,” the quintet treating the tune to a swinging midtempo reading that suits Flocks perfectly. A striking effect also distinguishes the arrangement of Maxwell’s “Shangri-La,” with the inclusion of mellotron (connected, apparently, to the Space Echo, an audio analog delay effects unit produced by Roland) intensifying the dream-like quality of the music.

Some swinging tunes do appear (e.g., “Street of Dreams”), but Mask of the Muse is less a conventional jazz album than a collection of instrumental mood music one could imagine the quintet presenting at a ballroom—even if Flocks’ playing, his soloing in particular, brands him a jazz player. Even further, a number of tunes are slow-jam blues ballads and the leader’s “Siren’s Spell” (a rare soprano outing) is more brisk bossa nova than anything else. How apt that this enticing set turns out to have been recorded at Dreamland Studios, located in Hurley, New York, at the edge of the Catskill Mountains.

September 2019

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