Full disclosure: Given its instrumentation and its description in press notes (“falls somewhere between … early-Jaco-era Weather Report and the spaced-out electronica of late-’70s Herbie Hancock”), the arrival of Orlando le Fleming’s new album did not create initial enthusiasm in these quarters. Weather Report and late-’70s Hancock did not leave much unexhausted terrain for their followers. Le Fleming is a talented acoustic bassist who has made albums of liberated lyricism like 2013’s OWL Trio, with saxophonist Will Vinson and guitarist Lage Lund. The news that he had plugged in and gone funky was not an optimal start to the day.
But le Fleming is too erudite and tasteful a musician to make another dumb funk record. True, this music seeks accessibility through groove. But le Fleming and drummer Ari Hoenig deal in subtle, complex, changeable rhythmic energy, not fixed funk. True, there are banks of Fender, Yamaha, ARP, Hammond and Prophet keyboards. But while saccharine twitterings from these devices can have a trivializing effect on any music, their sonorities here often provide alluring oceanic environments. True, le Fleming plays electric bass exclusively. But his sound is mellifluous, not twangy.
The great critic Whitney Balliett famously said that jazz needs surprise. Surprise is what most funk-jazz lacks, but le Fleming’s album is full of it. Within the party music of “Mr. Grumble,” there are serious jazz solos by tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake and guitarist Greg Tuohey. “Focustrate” is too convoluted and dense to be catchy, but it is. “Ellington” is a reductive vamp yet Duke lurks in the melody. “Melancholy,” with Tuohey and Frank LoCrasto (on Prophet-5) floating in space and Blake plaintive, is emotionally ambiguous, not one-dimensional.
This record is interesting enough to turn skepticism, if not into unqualified endorsement, then at least into resigned acceptance.