On the self-titled debut of Big Heart Machine, multi-instrumentalist Brian Krock leads a big-band jazz ensemble (19 participants including a conductor) through eight labyrinthine tracks. Krock’s contributions are on saxophone, clarinet, flute, and recorder, while his four of bandmates play a similar set of instruments, four others focus on trumpet and flugelhorn, four more on trombone, and the rest on vibraphone, piano, synth, electric guitar, electric and upright bass, and (of course) drums and percussion. This results in a rich, orchestral sound with the underpinnings of a rock band. Notably, the album was produced by Darcy James Argue, and occupies a similar space as the latter’s Secret Society.
The opening track, Don’t Analyze is based around a climbing rhythm carried out by various subsets of the group, while all join in from time to time with a dense flourish. The lines are jagged and contrapuntal, taking sudden left turns yet leaving room for short solos.
The five-part Tamalpais follows. It begins with an atmospheric interlude led by woodwinds and bass. This morphs into a rolling rhythm and then gently downtempo staccato vibes and guitar under a sax solo. A guitar-led section varying from long-held notes to speed picking accompanies big-band jazz trappings in the background. The third part of the suite takes things down for a few minutes before a blues-oriented sax solo accompanies heavy guitar chording toward the end of the track, while the fourth offers waves of brass as well as a piano / vibes interlude with hints of prog-rock stylings. The pieces ends downtempo with a focus on sax and a return to the opening atmospherics.
The final 20 minutes of the album is the most “conventional” (if anything about this album could fit that word). Both the penultimate (Jelly Cat) and final (Mighty Purty) track have more of a big band feel and pacing. Nonetheless, the latter has its share of angular turns.
Big Heart Machine covers a great deal of ground in approximately 60 minutes. It wends its way through dozens of themes and motifs, sticking with each long enough to provide a sense of familiarity, but quickly moving on. Krock’s saxophone playing (assuming that he is the main soloist) has a distinctive voice and straddles the line between inside and outside playing. The heavy use of electric guitar adds another unique twist to the recording.
Needless to say, this is a huge release. It is full of ideas and deftly executed, a candidate for album of the year.