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Le Rex: Escape of the Fire Ants (Cuneiform)

A review of the five-piece brass band's fourth album

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Le Rex, Escape of the Fire Ants
The cover of Escape of the Fire Ants by Le Rex

Thanks in large part to the popularity of the Dirty Dozen, the brass-band sound has become as formulaic as it is popular. It’s almost a postmodern version of Dixieland, with carefully prescribed roles—the sousaphone must always be huffing, the unison horn lines jagged and funky, the drum beat built around the snare—and a similar sense of audience expectation. If you want to be inventive, the thinking seems to go, why not just get a pianist and an upright bass?

Fortunately, that sort of thinking seems not to have reached Switzerland, where the five-piece brass band Le Rex manages to make the brass-band sound seem not only fresh but downright daring. It’s worth noting that theirs isn’t the classic brass-band lineup. There’s no trumpet, for one thing, which shifts the timbral balance and puts the saxophones in a more dominant role, and Marc Unternährer plays tuba, not sousaphone, a choice that affords him a much greater range of expression—and notes. Indeed, Unternährer’s upper register is so strong that he frequently takes the melodic lead, or plays in close harmony with trombonist Andreas Tschopp, as on “Elliott’s Theme.”

Though the writing on Escape of the Fire Ants is intricate and inventive, particularly on the dramatic, meter-shifting title tune, the improvisation is equally impressive. Escape is the quintet’s fourth album, and the musical rapport they’ve developed is deep, as shown by the almost conversational interplay between Tschopp and saxophonists Benedikt Reising and Marc Stucki on “One Must Imagine Sisyphus Happy.” Clearly, it’s good to be Le Rex.

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J.D. Considine

J.D. Considine has been writing about jazz and other forms of music since 1977. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Musician, Spin, Vibe, Blender, Revolver, and Guitar World. He was music critic at the Baltimore Sun for 13 years, and jazz critic at the Globe and Mail for nine. He has lived in Toronto since 2001.