Chris Bowden: Slightly Askew

Chris Bowden
Slightly Askew
Ninja Tune

English jazz has always been something of a forgettable proposition. Aside from the outer fringes of the avant-garde, British players and composers generally seem all too content to imitate one or two of their favorite Yanks rather than develop strong voices of their own. And when you don't have an individual style, you don't have star power, you don't have resonance, and you don't have history.

There are, however, times when you don't need those things--times when nothing succeeds like excess. Take Slightly Askew, by Birmingham composer/saxmeister Chris Bowden. Unlike his picky compatriots, Bowden plunders far and wide, with the single-minded nonchalance of a 500-pound grizzly ripping through a Girl Scout camp: When Bowden takes something, it's his to do with as he pleases.

And what pleases Bowden is creating four epic works of astonishing density that never seem cluttered or overlong. On Slightly Askew's opening opus, "Only Angst," Bowden pits the spirit of Igor Stravinsky against that of Earth, Wind & Fire (or is it Fletcher Henderson?) in a funky conflagration of brass, saxes, strings, at least two basslines, a piano part that brings to mind Duke Ellington on paint thinner, and drums that sound like a tank with caterpillar legs instead of Caterpillar treads. If hell is indeed substantially more fun than heaven, "Only Angst" might very well be what you'd hear in purgatory's lobby.

Bowden is perfectly capable of making heavenly sounds as well, albeit not without a hint of mischief. "Crockers & Killers" is all honeyed flutes, iridescent strings, and warm female vocals. That is, until you get to the part that makes your tongue want to come out of your mouth, which arrives before the gloriously swinging part where Bowden takes a mighty solo, which dissolves into an interlude that sounds like a cross between the Meters and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which finally brings us back to the honey and iridescence.

Ultimately, the sheer magnitude of Bowden's vision makes most of his peers on either side of the Atlantic seem downright anemic. Slightly Askew is so rich, so deep, so varied in color and mood, and, most of all, so unbelievably huge, that Bowden ends up sounding not like any American in particular, but like America itself--or at least the good parts. That's how big it is. At long last, America, here's some English jazz for your ass.

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