AMN Reviews: Jessica Lurie Ensemble – Megaphone Heart (Zipa!)

Jessica Lurie is a jazz dervish well on her way to spinning into a major New York City attraction. A dynamic saxophonist with an accordion hanging from her neck and a few strings and winds in the satchel slung over her shoulder, she leads this ensemble, co-founded the Tiptons Saxophone Quartet, and is a standing member of four more groups including La Buya and Sheqer, which specialize in Latin and Balkan tunes, respectively.

Her eponymous Ensemble has been around for about a decade now and introduces itself on its latest studio offering like it was handpicked by Kurt Weill, especially when the banjo of Brandon Seabrook bounces off the piano of Erik Deutsch. But they´re only getting warmed up. The group has no one style; rather, they come across as jacks of all trade and masters of each. It is personality that unifies their sound. Thematicallly, the Ensemble range all over the great big American mainland, conjuring cowboys, cool cats and immigrants. Hebrew sax glossolalia and a jam named after the great Yiddish modernist writer Der Nister is contrasted with meandering tales with the colour and tone of Celtic home counties recalled generations later by an Appalachian oldtimer. A few tracks are as angular and pushy as a New York City subway ride.

The production is round and full, separating Lurie, Seabrook, Deutsch, acoustic bassist Todd Sickafoose and drummer Allison Miller with just the right amount of distance to showcase their individual brilliance and collective cohesiveness. Jessica´s voice is in fine form, too, especially on the seductively restless country blues “Maps”, which opens up in the middle for a terrific guitar solo by Seabrook, who later is joyfully abrasive brushing up against Lurie´s saxophone on “Boot Heels”. And what a lovely, sad closer the ballad “Once” makes.

“Shop of Wild Dreams”, the quintet´s previous album,  is equally entertaining. Like a talented theatre improv group, they can craft something meaningful out of whatever you throw at them – lounge, dance, smoke, laugh as you are tossed head-first into the weird flute and synth tango of “Grinch” after having gotten all misty over the chilly but soulful “Grey Ocean”. Wined, dined and undermined, the Jessica Lurie Ensemble leaves your head spinning, your ears pleasantly stuffed and your expectations defied and surpassed.

Stephen Fruitman