Our Highway, the new album by New York-based quintet Cowboys & Frenchmen, invites listeners to recall busier days. The 43-minute suite harks back a couple years to a time when a jazz quintet was safe to pile into a minivan and hit the road, soaking up the sights around the U.S. as they traveled between gigs. Cowboys & Frenchmen took three such trips over as many years, traveling through the Northeast, West Coast, and Southeast.
The somewhat frantic pace of their do-it-yourself tours comes across in both the suite itself and the full-length video that the band assembled to complement it, but they also feel upbeat and reflective at times. The music, recorded live in 2019 at Manhattan’s SubCulture, plays continuously throughout the video. The screen frequently splits or cuts directly to footage of saxophonists Owen Broder and Ethan Helm busking in front of an historic Florida church, the band unwinding with Nintendo Switch games during tour downtimes, or scenes of the quintet getting back in the van and filming their travels with cellphones. Toward the end, they soak up a western sunset in California’s Carbon Canyon Park as the music reaches a pensive finale.
Helm, who composed the six parts of Our Highway, says the video represents their range of experiences during previous tours. “It’s a lot of work, and that’s why the music is so chaotic and frantic,” he says. “But also, there’s a real collective joy and dignity to working this hard for your art.”
Broder, like Helm an alto saxophonist, calls touring his favorite piece of “the puzzle of activities” that comes with leading a band. “We get to see different parts of the country and the world, and share music with a bunch of different communities,” he says. “The work that leads up to going on tour is immediately paid off when you get in the car or on the plane to go where you’re going.”
Cowboys & Frenchmen came together in 2013. Broder, Helm, and drummer Matt Honor were roommates who met at Eastman School of Music. Bassist Ethan O’Reilly and pianist Chris Ziemba (replaced by Addison Frei on Our Highway) were like-minded players they knew from school. They took their name from The Cowboy and the Frenchman, a 1988 David Lynch film, rather than using a leader’s name, to make the quintet more like an artistic workshop than one person’s vision. “Also, that’s a huge thing we take from David Lynch himself: The idea of serious fun, or having fun with serious music. Exploring genres and getting weird,” Helm explains.
Although Helm and Broder both play alto, they alternate the double-horn approach with use of their secondary instruments: flute (Helm) and baritone sax or bass clarinet (Broder). Both cite a wide range of influences, from Johnny Hodges’ lyrical tone to Ornette Coleman’s rugged approach. American folk music also played a role on the new album.
The range of moods is apparent in the album’s opening minutes. “American Whispers: Pines” begins with the two altos playing in unison, using crisp, classical tones. But after less than 45 seconds, the rhythm section creates fast tension and both horns run off in different manic directions. Their folkish unison reappears in the meditative, flowing melody of “Streams” before it segues into the more Ornette-ish “An Old Church.”
The idea for the video album began before the band’s 2019 tour. After Helm took a class on the history of 1960s conceptual art, which included several videos of performances and installations, the band brainstormed about how to combine performance with modern dissemination through media like the internet. Broder and Helm created spreadsheets full of visuals to complement the various moods of Our Highway. The final product, edited by filmmaker Barry Mottier, plays up things the band hadn’t noticed in the moment. “Seeing all the cool things that Barry put into it—of us laughing and loading up the car, filming each other—that’s something that didn’t dawn on me until the edit,” Helm says. “Initially we were thinking it’d be a little more hectic with not as many fun moments in it. But what we have now is more accurate.”
Released while social distancing and masks are still a part of everyday life, and any type of tour remains on permanent hold, Our Highway presents an interesting time piece. In lieu of a release show, the band hosted a premiere of the video at the end of February on Live from Our Living Rooms, an online platform created by Broder and two other musicians.
The contrast between the journeys depicted on screen and current times is not lost on the band. “The album is a lot more meaningful to me now than it was a year ago. Which is something I didn’t expect,” Helm says. Broder agrees, adding, “Watching ourselves travel and play in a club with an audience, it’s a lot weightier for us, I think.”