Ralph Carney has always been a sort of wild man with chops. First in the proto-new wave band Tin Huey and later as an ongoing support player with artists like Tom Waits, his saxophone approach fits perfectly in screwball situations. Behind the jokes, though, it’s always clear that he can blow straight and fierce if the mood strikes him. So when he calls his own group a Serious Jass Project, expect the music to balance his irreverent sensibilities with a respect for his material.
Seriously, the second Project album, digs into bar walkin’, honkin’ jazz. Carney’s horn fluency makes him a virtual big band: He plays all saxophones, from soprano to bass, not forgetting C-melody, as well as clarinets, trumpet, lap steel and English horn. He also sings, though his Leonard Cohen-esque range might be his Achilles’ heel. A three-piece rhythm section holds it all together.
This type of session could easily digress into bad parody full of goofball tenor sax honks, but Carney’s tight arrangements avoid that pitfall. “Meet Dr. Foo,” a Coleman Hawkins deep cut, deftly combines muted trumpet with flute. Frank Loesser’s “I Wish I Were Twins” puts the bass sax in the forefront, alongside the tenor. The final track breaks the mood with a free improvisation, “Echoes of Chloe,” revealing yet another style the group does well. Next time, if they merge musical worlds a bit more convincingly, things will really sound hot. And maybe Carney will avoid the temptation to break into nonsensical babble in the final moments.