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June 2008

Virginia Mayhew Septet
A Simple Thank You
Renma

“Happy” isn’t a word used often to describe music these days, but there’s no getting around it: this set sounds like nothing so much as a face-splitting, ear-to-ear grin from the first note to the last.

Which isn’t to say that it’s simplistic or shallow—this is serious fun. Mayhew’s arrangements are so rich that her septet often creates a sound as full as a big band’s. The rhythms are irrepressibly propulsive, especially when they depart from standard timings, and the melody lines are challenging and rife with the unexpected. This is the kind of setting in which musicians who aren’t at the top of their game at all times will get thrown to the curb before they know it.

Tenor/soprano saxist Mayhew generously shares solo opportunities; she and her fellow horn players—alto/baritone saxist Lisa Parrott, trumpeter/flugelhornist Scott Harrell, trombonist Noah Bless, and, on two selections, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen—toss around ideas like a group of kids playing hacky-sack. Like any good soloist, Mayhew is aggressive, but there’s a confident gentleness to her approach that tempers even her most declamatory statements; her solo on a funked-up “Rhythm-A-Ning,” for instance, caresses, rather than counterattacks, the leathery rhythmic punch delivered by bassist Harvie S and drummer Victor Jones.

Parrot explores the daunting lower regions of her bari’s range without losing any tonal sureness or breath control; she resists the temptation to let the instrument’s timbral exoticism take the place of melodic imagination, and her skittering lines give lie to the old cliché about the large horn being “slow.” Harvie S (who composed the lilting, soft-edged but decidedly non-bathetic title tune) and guitarist Kenny Wessel step out from their accompanists’ roles for substantial solo work, and Mayra Casales’ Latin percussion adds polyrhythmic urgency to “Live Your Life” and the wryly conceived “One for the Parking Fairy.”

Too often, contemporary jazz seems so fixated on identity politics and ideological statements of purpose—is it “Revivalist”? “Free”? “Smooth”? “Fusion”? “Postmodern”?—that the simple pleasures of a swinging, unpretentious good time are forgotten. It’s something of a relief, then, to affirm that “a good time was had by all,” and invite the listener to share in the happy results.

Originally published in June 2008
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