My February review of Bohemiana Vol. 1, the proper debut recording by the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra, developed into a review of the the Dan Roberts Show. Then again, so did the album. As I pointed out at the time, the pianist’s name was in the full title (Bohemiana: The Compositions and Arrangements of Dan Roberts, Vol. 1)—the only element of the BCJO’s collective career that calls out a specific member.
If anything, his role now seems to have been downplayed that first time out. Bohemiana Vol. 2, which drops this month in celebration of the 17-piece band’s eighth anniversary, is even more of a writer’s record than its prequel. One of the new disc’s eight tracks has no soloists at all. Another is a setting for vocalist Lena Seikaly; two more are solo features, but those, too, are at least as much about what Roberts puts around them.
None of this is a complaint: My God, let him fly. Roberts first came to my attention with the dazzlingly smart harmonies of his chart for Aimee Mann’s “Amateur,” which he did for Seikaly on her 2011 album Lovely Changes—and on which he added a gorgeous, sly, twinkling solo with cleverly placed near-dissonances. I was late to the game: Roberts had by that time already made two records of his own. Yoshimisongs in 2006, with Roberts’ U.S. Army Blues bandmate Larry Ferguson on drums and Baltimore’s Jeff Reed on bass, is a “reimagining” of The Flaming Lips’ 2002 rock album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Through a combination of re-composing and re-arranging, Roberts makes Yoshimi borderline-unrecognizable (hence the name changes). Who could hear the swinging thrust of “Taking Lots of Vitamins” and find it workable to sing “Yoshimi, they don’t believe me/ But you won’t let those robots eat me?”
If Yoshimisongs was overt in its marriage of indie(ish) rock with post-bop jazz, 2009’s Can’t Not was hot fusion. Retaining Ferguson, it also adds guitarist John Lee and tenor saxophonist Matt Rippetoe in an eccentric mix of Stereolab-like motorik vamps, swirling electro-textures, and furious improvisation. Tunes like “One of Our Pastimes” and “Was Is Will Be” are insanely tuneful, play with glitch and rhythmic sleight-of-hand, but above all work with the concept of timbre as material to be arranged. The stuck-in-a-rut melody of “One of Our Pastimes” is less relevant than its voicing of Fender Rhodes in unison with tenor, or Lee’s switch between acoustic rhythm and distorted wah-wah electric guitar.
Since then, however, Roberts’s highest profile has been as pianist, arranger, and Master Sergeant in the U.S. Army Blues jazz band and Army pop ensemble Downrange (in case you wondered just how far he goes with this whole jazz-rock interchange), or in the BCJO.
Undoubtedly his intention was not to steal the latter’s albums—and yet, and yet. Trumpeter/co-leader Joe Herrera’s solo on Vol. 2’s opening “Ave Maria” is an impeccably phrased, rhythmically ingenious jewel; it’s also 30 seconds of a 5:40 performance that’s more about the jubilant call-and-responses between reeds and brasses, as well as their elaborate internal latticework. “Link’s,” too, is a dual exercise, the altos of Marty Nau and Jason Hammers in harmony and in the lead. When they solo, it’s over luxurious trombone backgrounds. “Two Bass Hit,” on the other hand, places the improvisers (tenorist Billy Wolfe, trombonist Steve Shaw, drummer Kevin McDonald) front and center, treating John Lewis’ melody with an energetic staccato that hurries it along to the solos, then elongates at the close only to cushion McDonald’s workout.
Of course the soloists and featured players live up to their spotlights. Seikaly, who fills out “Under a Blanket of Blue,” can’t help but be great. For “Lady Sings the Blues,” Roberts brings the vulnerability with his languorous brass backgrounds and longing sax fills; guitarist Josh Walker brings the blues, palpably and unmistakably (yet with considerable subtlety, via notes that bend just enough to be blue). Baritone saxophonist/co-leader Brad Linde turns his feature on “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” into an extended soliloquy, more tender and exquisite than Linde’s love of the Tristano school might suggest. It’s the Christmas carol “Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella,” though, that achieves perfection on both fronts. Roberts imbues ensemble statements and section dialogues with chords and a jingling-sleigh-bells cymbal gait, then puts the magic final touch in himself with an undulating piano line. That’s before Griffith Kazmierczak rejoins with a pungent, beautiful trumpet solo that leaps like a ballerina, in the process finding more pathos in the song than perhaps even Roberts had imagined.
Steal the album though he may, the BCJO is not his band; Roberts is more Sammy Nestico to Herrera and Linde’s joint Count Basie—and all indications are that he’s happy to be so. Still, the Bohemiana duology is a solid reminder that when you attend the band’s monthly residence at Milkboy ArtHouse, and hear Linde in his soft North Carolina accent say “This is an arrangement by Dan Roberts,” you’re in for something special.