Contagious enjoyment is very much the goal of Ken Field’s Revolutionary Snake Ensemble. Mission accomplished.
Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, I Want That Sound! (ACF Records)
By Michael Ullman
Led by alto saxophonist Ken Field and currently a sextet, the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble has now released its fourth disc, the first comprised entirely of originals. The sound the RSE makes has been described as a volatile mixture inspired by two types of bands: avant-garde jazz and New Orleans brass.
This combination isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Experimental jazz includes the exhilarating theatrics of Sun Ra, complete with costumes, dancers, singers, and Ra’s brand of delightfully sloppy playing of original tunes. New Orleans brass bands tended to play a traditional repertoire comprised of marches, hymns, and funeral music, along with rambles, blues, popular tunes, and ragtime. But, once again, precision was not the goal. In parades, the bands were led by high-stepping leaders who wore a sash and carried a stick, pretending to lead the folks behind them. The musicians were followed by what Louis Armstrong called “Good Time Charlies,” impromptu crowds just wanting to have some fun.
And infectious fun is very much the goal of Field’s RSE in its new disc, which offers “Just Walk Closer,” a rousingly eclectic re-working of the famous funeral hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” (Those who want to hear a beautifully respectful version of this song should listen to Louis Armstrong’s recording with the Dukes of Dixieland. Armstrong just plays the melody and sings: no “routining,” as he calls improvising, on a funeral hymn.)
The Revolutionary Snake Ensemble’s version begins with wavering held notes that gradually come to hint at the original melody. After a chorus by the horns the rhythm kicks in, with drummer Phil Neighbors playing press rolls in the fashion of the twenties; then the band plays the re-harmonized song with a notable solo by trombonist and tuba player Dave Harris. The Field originals include “John’s Jailhouse Blues,” dedicated to a friend who was arrested for striking against a bus company. Or at least that’s his story. It’s a charming blues with little brought in to complicate it. “Slippery When Wet” is a more traditionally stomping number anchored by Blake Newman’s vibrant bass. (The song’s an original, not the tune with the same title played by Chick Corea or Bud Shank.) The other long-time RSE members, tenor saxophonist Tom Hall and trumpeter Jerry Sabatini, both memorably contribute to the group improvisation on “Slippery When Wet.”
The entire session is more than a little chaotic — by design. It’s also immensely enjoyable, whipping up high spirits without the need of any visual theatrics. It should set the feet of most of its listeners dancing, or marching.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.