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August 2008

Steuart Liebig/Tee-Tot Quartet
Always Outnumbered
pfMentum

“Tee-tot” is an apt onomatopoeic term for the semi-drunk, limping rhythms put across by this oddball quartet. Led by West Coast “contrabassguitarist” Steuart Liebig, the group boasts a frontline of cornet (Dan Clucas) and Dobro (Scot Ray), with Joseph Berardi supplying understated drums and percussion. The music’s warped, blues-jazz flavor belies its chamberlike precision; it’s something Dave Douglas and Bill Frisell might have come up with if locked in a room together. The themes—usually voiced by cornet and Dobro in unison—defy any clear major-minor schema, reflecting Liebig’s head for atonal composition but also his love of musical tongue-in-cheek.

There’s a sparse, haunted, far-off quality to some pieces, such as “Serenade,” “Fearless” and “Mercy Kitchen,” balanced by the smartass surf-rock of “Bobtail,” the wobbly bright-tempo swing of “Chucktown” and the disjointed beat of “Barrelfoot Grind.” Clucas moves between muted and open horn, while Berardi uses brushes to give even the more assertive pieces a gentler impact. Ray, who has recorded as a trombonist (hear 2003’s Active Vapor Recovery featuring Nels Cline), gets a fantastically pure tone from the Dobro on the quieter tracks, though the instrument sounds less unique, more like a conventional guitar, when Ray opts for distortion.

One of the least predictable handlers of the electric bass, Liebig plays a restrained role in this group, as he does in his more classically oriented Minim quartet. He can solo, no doubt, but more often we hear him anchoring the groove or stepping forward with clear melodies, extending the quartet’s contrapuntal options.

Originally published in August 2008
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