It’s been six years since saxophonist Roy Nathanson issued his acclaimed concept album Fire at Keaton’s Bar and Grill. What he has come up this time is difficult to describe and easy to enjoy. Sotto Voce blends bebop, funk, free improv, poetry and hip-hop, and the result is bizarre and irresistible.
Nathanson’s unusual quintet includes violinist Sam Bardfeld and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes—the three are members of the Jazz Passengers—as well as bassist Tim Kiah and human beatbox artist Napoleon Maddox: Anything that resembles drumming or percussion on this album is courtesy of Mr. Maddox’s mouth. All of the band members provide vocals in one form or another.
Six of the nine tunes are little music-stories composed by Nathanson. “London Story,” for instance, is a vignette about a subway musician who sings “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” The others include a compelling version of the old R&B song “Sunny,” an arrangement of Roland Kirk’s “The Inflated Tear” that features lyrics by Nathanson, and a riveting version of the standard “Sunrise, Sunset.”
The record dazzles from start to finish, but the first track is simply sensational. Based on an original poem with the recurring line “My father paid me to read/Five cents a page,” “By the Page” sounds like a mash-up of Bobby McFerrin and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and it will get stuck in your brain. Be forewarned: It is insanely catchy. You will be singing that tune for days after listening to this strange and exhilarating disc.