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05/11/12

The Spokes
Not So Fast
Strudelmedia

The instant upside of a clarinet-trombone-soprano saxophone trio is that it’s such an unusual grouping a fresh sound is pretty much guaranteed. But newness wears off quickly, leaving the players the challenge of making musical sense of the format. As soprano veteran Phillip Johnston writes in a song note for Not So Fast, the debut album by the Spokes, “The roles of the instruments can never be assumed the way those in a more traditional jazz [band] can.”

The Spokes—Johnston, clarinetist Andy Biskin and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring—thrive on the freedom to define their roles, both as individuals and members of a closely knit unit. If there’s a defining quality to Not So Fast, it’s the remarkable fluency of the playing. Alternating between lighter-than-air harmonies and edgy counterpoint, the band engages in games of tag in which one member is sprung to run across the middle with the central theme. Hasselbring’s uncommon agility on his instrument provides an exhilarating X factor: Good luck catching him.

The group’s witty, seamless sound draws from Jimmy Giuffre’s trios (acting like a stripped-down version of Johnston’s Microscopic Septet) as well as baroque styles, klezmer, minimalism, Aaron Copland’s heartland music and early brass bands. Some of the tunes have fictional/historical components, like Biskin’s “Lady Baltimore,” which suggests a meeting of the minuet and West Side Story, and Johnston’s minimalism-dappled “Wiesinski,” about a ruthless Eastern European entrepreneur. But even when not telling stories, the band has imagination to burn.

Originally published in April 2012
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