Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Tortoise: The Catastrophist

JazzTimes may earn a small commission if you buy something using one of the retail links in our articles. JazzTimes does not accept money for any editorial recommendations. Read more about our policy here. Thanks for supporting JazzTimes.

For Tortoise’s first album in seven years, the band did a little closet cleaning. Among the material that got dusted off were five pieces commissioned by the city of Chicago in 2010 to celebrate its jazz community. All five started out with basic head/solos/head constructions, which anyone familiar with this group can tell you is not usually the way it rolls. It should be no surprise, then, to learn that every piece was changed drastically in the recording studio. You’ll find plenty of arresting beats, intriguing melodies and alluring textures on The Catastrophist, but few traditional song structures and nothing resembling a solo.

To use an old-fashioned term, this music is a kind of fusion, but anchored more in rock than jazz, particularly rock of the progressive variety. On intricate tracks like “Ox Duke” and “Tesseract,” bassist Doug McCombs’ clipped tone and free-ranging lines bring to mind the late Chris Squire of Yes. And the only thing that could make the florid closing section of “At Odds With Logic” sound more like Soft Machine is a Mike Ratledge organ solo.

Another former Soft Machine member, the inimitable Robert Wyatt, was asked to contribute lyrics and vocals to this album’s lone ballad. He declined, the honor fell to Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley instead, and the result is the bloodless “Yonder Blue.” The other vocal track here, a cover of David Essex’s “Rock On” sung by Todd Rittmann, is fun but puzzling. Tortoise’s music is more appealing when the singers stay away and the core quintet is left to lock into mesmeric, slow-building grooves propelled by analog synths and/or mallet percussion, as on “Shake Hands With Danger,” “Hot Coffee” and the album’s longest and best track, “Gesceap.” At such moments, the band is simply awesome.

Originally Published