Grown Backwards is the most consistently inspired recording David Byrne has released in many years. Continuing to build on the nylon-string guitar accompanied by a small ensemble and string section formula employed on his last record and recent tours, Byrne has fashioned a compelling sound that is highly original and yet familiar. You’ll find bits of Byrne’s previously successful musical hybrids here to be sure—from the score to The Catherine Wheel and his Brazilian Rei Momo fling in the ’80s to the 2003 soundtrack for Lead Us Not Into Temptation—but the songs on Grown Backwards are more than an amalgam of previously explored ideas. The strings buoy the songs, infusing them with feelings ranging from whimsy to melodrama, while a panoply of other instruments (exotic percussion, marimba, flute, euphonium, accordion, harp, Theremin, Dobro, organ, brass, reeds, slit drum, and even a vacuum cleaner) blend beautifully with the core instruments in novel combinations—and there are even two surprisingly convincing operatic indulgences.
Musical innovations and unexpected vocal styles alone don’t necessarily result in great songs, of course, and it’s the seamless integration of those elements with Byrne’s lyrics that ultimately elevate Grown Backwards to high-altitude artistry. Fraught with irony and complex conceptual juxtapositions, the words take on huge topics such as life, love, death, democracy, and personal freedom, without ever becoming overbearing, maudlin, or doctrinaire. In addition to 12 Byrne originals, there are also three covers: Kurt Wagner and Donald Charles Book’s extremely timely “The Man Who Loved Beer,” “Au Fond du Temple Saint” from The Pearl Fishers opera (sung in French as a duet with Rufus Wainwright), and Verdi’s “Un di Felice, Eterea” from La Traviata (sung in Italian)—all of which enhance and fortify Byrne’s overall creative vision. Nonesuch.
With his custom doubleneck Yamaha solidbody and Nouveau Tuning system, Frank Gambale continues to push the envelope of rock-tinged jazz improvisation. This album is packed with the kind of growling, fat-toned phrases that have characterized the Aussie transplant’s playing since he burst on the scene in 1986 as a sweep-picking shredder. But contrasting such sax-like tones are a plethora of piano-inspired timbres—spanky chord voicings composed of close intervals and shimmering with subtle dissonance. Made possible by Gambale’s recently developed alternate tuning, these chimey, fingerpicked sounds allow him to express his harmonic ideas more fully than before. Drummer Billy Cobham provides relaxed, yet razor-sharp grooves to support Gambale and his bassists—Ric Fierabracci and Steve Billman—as they spin lines at warp speed. Gambale composed and arranged the album’s 12 originals, proving that his chops extend well beyond the fretboard. Wombat.
John Abercrombie Quartet
In the three years since this latest incarnation of the John Abercrombie Quartet released its debut album, Cat ‘n’ Mouse, the group has been performing regularly—and it shows. With the exception of Béla Barték’s “Soldier’s Song,” all of the compositions on Class Trip are largely improvised, though the music flows so consistently that one is hard put to determine where the composition ends and the free-form playing begins. Drummer Joey Baron and bassist Marc Johnson provide the perfect impetus for Abercrombie and violinist Mark Feldman’s brilliant harmonic and melodic interplay, resulting in a continuously-unfolding aural tapestry of rich colors, tonalities, and moods. Abercrombie’s playing has never been better, imbuing the music with emotional power and depth. ECM.