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CD Feature/ The Peggy Lee Band: "New Code"

img  Tobias

It goes without saying that Eric Satie did not coin his term „Furniture Music“ with Chill-Out compilations on his mind. And yet, Satie’s idea that sounds can be fine-tuned to match your homely habitat has proven prophetic. In fact, Feng-Shui-oriented Starbucks compilations and a new generation of stupendously successful, medially ubiquitous Pop-Jazz vocalists have given rise to the notion that albums are about mood alone. Songwriting has been replaced as the principal quality criterion by an obsessive desire for seamlessness and a new paradigm of unperturbed harmony: If it doesn't upset you, it must be good for you. As Peggy Lee demonstrates on „New Code“, the world would be a poor and desolate place without artists like her challenging this ideal.

The questions she keeps asking on the album are inspired by her firm belief that there can be no true joy without pain, no resolution without conflict: What is structure? What is composition? Where does it end and improvisation begin? Which is more prominent in provoking an emotional response – timbre or melody? To arrive at suitable answers, she has ramped up her line-up by another two performers to arrive at an Octet comprising of an electric 'Rock' Section and a bittersweet Brass Band, both fueled by the ultra-sensitive Drumming of Dylan van der Schyff whose trio with Torsten Müller and John Butcher, recorded in the Summer of 2007, garnered a lot of attention late last year. The instrumental extension is by no means of a purely philosophical order: The inbuilt Trumpet/Flugelhorn/Sax and Trombone-trio of Brad Turner, Jon Bentley and Jeremy Berkman lends a rich, resonant, round and warm flavor to the otherwise pointed and resolute actions of the ensemble.

Which means that „New Code“, for all its experimental ambitions and ever-curious deconstructionist tendencies, has turned out an accessible album – unless, of course, you already find Norah Jones to be a challenge. The opening interpretation of Bob Dylan's „All I Really Want to Do“ is a point in case: Soft-as-banana-cake-Horn-Sheets create breathing musical tides, while short, upbeat solos are playfully caught by the peleton like frivolous escapees on the last day of the Tour de France. It is not the only moment of its kind on the album: On „Tug“, a brooding, sensuous yet foreboding introduction is counterpointed by a melodic, balladesque middle section before resurfacing as an enigmatic denouement in the final minute of the piece. And the closing trio of tunes ends the record on a consoling note, culminating in a powerfully subdued cover of „Lost in the Stars“ by Kurt Weil.

Elsewhere, however, the race for uncovering the hidden worlds underneath this comforting and reassuring surface is certainly on. Three short, yet intense „Offshoots“, see the band explore the details of the relationships between different instrumental groups. On the Lee-penned tracks, they walk the tightrope between fixed form and freedom: Songs dissolve, motives are disassembled, modes of collaborations questioned. The first moments of a piece reveal next to nothing about what's to come, as though the players were still discussing a direction. But then a single, all but incidental percussive signal or the sudden advent of a guiding Guitar lick will inevitably lead the way towards concretion. Structure, it appears, organically emerges as the result of occasionally very subtle decisions, of scattered egos coalescing into a combined continuum of will. Improvisations, meanwhile, can be considered positive disturbances on the surface of this continuum, like fountains of light and liquid heat shooting from the upper crust of the sun into the cosmos. Melody and timbre can work in hand to create stirring emotional reactions. Composition can be as little as a vague idea about dynamic development or as much as a minutely defined plan of notes, chords and interactions.

This is most apparent in the thematic „Preparations“, the eight and a half minute classic-in-spe of the album. Oscillating between anthemic swells and pussyfooting tenderness, between implied outbursts and suspenseful restraint, it seems to begin by accident and to never really come to a conclusion while keeping the listener firmly glued to his or her seat. Of course, pieces like this, deeply drenched in sensations of expectation, wonder, euphoria and interspersed sadness, are about mood as well. But they are about a lot more to boot: The joys of discovery, the pleasures of surprise and the excitement of following an uncompromising cast of artists to a place uniquely their own. For those prepared to go the full length, Peggy Lee's new code will prove infinitely more rewarding than fine-tuning sounds with your homely habitat.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Drip Audio Records

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