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02/05/14

Travis Sullivan’s Björkestra
I Go Humble
Zoho

The Icelandic vocalist Björk makes otherworldly pop music. It’s unusual and emotional and it takes risks. So it makes little sense to arrange those sounds for big band. The big band, by necessity, is one of the safest endeavors in jazz. With so many players involved, the arrangements generally need to be set and structured. There is little room for error or abandon. So by bringing them down to earth, saxophonist Travis Sullivan’s decade-old, 13-piece Björkestra strips Björk’s songs of what makes them special. On the band’s live second album, I Go Humble, for instance, the string-bolstered, minimal electronica of “Venus as a Boy” is translated to elegant swing. That hardly seems like an upgrade. In music, one should seek to put the edge on, not take it off.

So the most successful passages on Humble are actually the ones with the least number of people playing. The first three minutes of the title track, fleshed out by just Art Hirahara’s sharp electric piano, Yoshi Waki’s sticky electric bass, Joe Abbatantuono’s frisky drums and Becca Stevens’ capable but restrained vocals, are just fine without horns. “Unravel” places Stevens’ vocals against an emotional backdrop of only piano and laptop. That’s very much in the vein of Björk. And “Isobel,” brought to life by just piano, bass, drums and two saxophones, is focused and intimate. It’s very good. For the most part, Björk’s music is simple and insular. It doesn’t call for big-band reimaginings. Maybe quintet is the way to go.

Originally published in January/February 2014
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