To Swing, Wildly: Notes on The Flail

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[Note: Like the piece following it, this was written for  the current Arbus, but tightness of space precluded its publication. This is more biographical, touching on their backstory and the dynamics of the festival gig this weekend; their excellent  “Live At Smalls” CD itself is reviewed below.]

The word “flail” commonly refers to a European device used alternately for threshing grain or thrashing people. Two lengths of wood or metal, joined with chain or rope, measured and made to suit specific tasks. We may recognize it most readily in the form of nunchaku, which have a variety of applications. In its verb form “flail” means “to swing wildly”, and it’s in that sense that The Flail can be regarded. The Flail: Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE) is their fourth album, and it captures them at their very best.

The Flail play what could be called “mainstream” or “traditional” jazz: straight-ahead, build around a defined melody played by a frontline of trumpet and saxophone, with a consistently swinging rhythm section. But words can’t do justice to their attack, which is informed by the broad diversity of the members’ experiences. There is no leader, per se; it is a group of individuals working toward a common purpose.

Dennis Cook, of JamBase.com, notes: “Despite a name that suggests spastic movement this is measured, gorgeously executed and warm. … [They] move with seamless, telepathic grace.” Jazz great Kenny Barron (best-known for his work with Stan Getz) wouldn’t have to pay a dime to gain entry to any jazz gig anywhere, so when he says “I’d pay good money to see these guys play,” it carries extra weight.

Most of their songs are their own compositions, though they’ve done excellent interpretations of Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle”, Duke Ellington’s “Oclupaca”, “Remember” by Irving Berlin and “The Chooch” by George Garzone (who has employed several of the band members). The new album is entirely original, with three of the eight tunes written by bassist (and Jacksonville native) Reid Taylor, including the lead burner “Mr. Potato Bass” and the closing “Under the Influence of Stereolab”.

They specialize in loping mid-tempo grooves, evoking a mood of smoothness and sophistication—think luxury car commercial—but prove adept at any pace. Note “Better Watch What You Wish For” or “Light At the End of the Tunnel” (both by pianist Brian Marsella), which phase through entire moods so quick you barely notice it. “We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet” sees a New Orleans second-line beat give way to soul-jazz harmonies Roland Kirk would savor. The overall picture is of a very mature, forward-thinking group of jazzmen rooted in the tradition.

They have infused the word “flail” with fresh new meaning, just as they have the concept of jazz quintet, which was once revolutionary but was long since so leaden from the baggage of a previous era that modern musicians often avoided it on purpose. With a frontline of tenor and trumpet, and piano-bass-drums rhythm, the challenge is to define a signature sound within a format where the listener has preconceptions based on what they have heard before. It’s the same challenge faced by a rock quartet of guitar-bass-drums-charismatic front-man or, for that matter, a symphony orchestra.

Reid Taylor, whose 80 year-old French bass anchors the rhythm section, made an interesting point about their dynamic. Speaking via phone from New York, while preparing for a gig at Fat Cat later that day, he noted that all the members of the band maintain full schedules working in all kinds of groups besides The Flail, and that’s true for their colleagues. The critical and commercial emphasis has shifted from the bands themselves to the individual—there are fewer “sidemen”, as such. This, ironically, strengthens the unit, as each member brings a lot of diverse experiences to the table. The same could be said for the jazz scene in Northeast Florida.

Born in Jacksonville in 1973, Taylorwas first drawn to music as a profession by the extremely influential electric bassist Mike Watt, formerly of a seminal punk band called the Minutemen. It was just a few years later that the influence of Charles Mingus inspired a shift toward the acoustic upright; he currently plays a French model built in the 1920s and uses gut-strings, as opposed to the newer steel strings used by some 80-90% of jazz bassists today. Taylorwas first trained by Steve Novosel while attending American University in Washington, DC; he later studied under the great Butch Warren for four years before he moved to NYC to train under Steve Irwin.

After graduating, Taylor dove deeper into the deep pool of opportunity for a skilled bassist in the New Yorkscene, working for artists as diverse as bop baritonist Cecil Payne to avant-garde standard-bearer Charles Gayle. Besides his work in the Flail, he also does a weekly gig at the WestVillage’s Fat Cat Jazz Club with Ned Goold and plays in a noise-rock band called Gunnar; he also recorded an album of his own pop music under the nom-de-bass “Balk”. All in a day’s work.

It was while attending the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music (founded 1986), that the members of the Flail first met and began working together in 2001. Trumpeter Dan Blankinship is fromRichmond,VA, and counts Wynton Marsalis and Lee Morgan as inspirations; he was classically-trained at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory before turning to jazz full-time. Tenor saxophonist Stephan Moutot moved toNew Yorkafter building a career in his nativeFrance. Pianist Brian Marsella hails fromPhiladelphia, which has produced countless jazz greats. Drummer Brian Zebroski was raised inPittsburghbefore training under masters like Billy Hart and Charlie Persip at New School; he’s also a member of the acclaimed Alex Skolnick Trio. (Hipster alert: he also played with Bonnie Tyler, of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” fame.)    

Over the years, the Flail has burnished their international appeal, starting inFrance. Moutot’s connections in his homeland’s music scene enabled him to open the door into one of the most passionate jazz markets in the world. Quoting their bio: “Over the course of several tours in France they have played to packed houses in Paris, Lyon, Grenoble, Renne, Ardeche, and Marseille; highlights include Jazz a Vienne (2002, 2004), the Marseille Festival du Jazz des Cinq Continents (2002, 2005), and the College d’Espagne at the Cite Universitaire Internationale de Paris (2009).” They’ve even played with rappers and b-boys in Villefontaine, recalling Max Roach’s work with Fab 5 Freddy and the New York City Breakers some 30 years ago. 2007 saw their debut in Madrid, where they hope to return this year.

This aspect of their aesthetic has evolved during the group’s decade together, dating back to the very onset of their output. Their first album, Live In France, was recorded during a concert in Grenoble (birthplace of Andre the Giant) in 2002; the second, Never Fear (2006), was recorded at Paris’ Acousti studios. Their self-titled third album was, like the newest one, recorded live at the venerable Smalls Jazz Club inNew York, which has hosted nearly every big name of the past 40 years at one time or another.

Much like the Village Vanguard, which is arguably the all-time greatest setting for jazz recording (with all due respect to the Columbia Records studios on 5th Street, and Rudy Van Gelder’s living room in Hackensack, NJ), the character of Smalls comes through in the sound; a skilled listener could probably discern the location just by listening.

Over time, the band has come to prefer recording live, as it better captures the immediacy of their sound, from the nuances of improvisation to crowd response and the ambient noises that, in proper amounts, adds a texture to the music that no studio can. “There’s a lot of clinking glasses,” notes Taylor with a laugh.

And other musicians agree: The Flail’s is just one among many jazz albums recorded there in just the last few years. It’s a brilliant business model that other venues for live music could utilize to bring in extra revenue and get their name around to new customers. (The Knitting Factory had great success using this model in the ‘90s, in the process helping undergird the scene as it exists today.) Among those who appear on albums released by the club: Cyrille Aimee, Spike Wilner, Omer Avital, Bruce Barth, Ben Wolfe, Ari Hoenig, Jimmy Greene, Ryan Kisor, Kevin Haynes, Ethan Iverson, Jason Linder. That’s just a drop in the bucket, but it’s a very well-documented drop.

With the new album already generating strong critical buzz in pre-release, and shows already booked in three countries 2011 is looking to be the Flail’s biggest and busiest yet. Their performance at the Jazz Festival comes at the start of a summer that will take them well outside their NYC base to other hotspots like Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and WashingtonDC. They are also building toward their first West Coast tour, which runs from Los Angeles up to Vancouver via Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, etc. And, of course, they will be returning toEurope.

It was a special thrill for Taylor to bring his group down to his former hometown for last year’s Jazz Festival, where they were booked in the 2pm opening slot on Sunday. This time, expect a more central spot, where audiences can see one of the rising young jazz bands in the country at a key point in their musical development. The fact that they view our festival as being as important as all this other stuff speaks to the role it plays—and can continue to play—in the jazz world. Hopefully they will make a regular practice of appearing here.

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