HO HO WHO: DC Improvisers Collective emphasizes the word “collective,” in the sense that there’s not a set lineup but a loose assemblage of improvising musicians (but not singers) orbiting around the core trio of keyboardist Jonathan Matis, bassist Chris Brown, drummer Ben Azzara. With a piano trio being the nucleus of the band, you could easily pigeonhole them as being an instrumental jazz ensemble. That’s not the whole story or the whole spectrum—but it’s not wrong, either. Still, theirs is a free improv. And it can get deliciously weird.
HERALD ANGELS SWING: Now, that said, aside from the extended opening quote of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” on Natalie Spehar’s cello, there are an awful lot of jazz signifiers in “Mall Santa’s on Break.” Spehar riffs, and guitarist John Kamman fills. Matis engages Kamman in call-and-response, which quickly transforms into dueling one-bar phrases. There’s a syncopated flugelhorn solo, courtesy of Patrick Whitehead. But most importantly, the whole thing swings. In fact, the groove is really what provides the shape of the tune, at a jaunty, lounge-y pace that has a hint of sleaze to it. What is Mall Santa doing on his break?
AWAY IN G MAJOR: Now to briefly get technical. The conventional definition of “free jazz” is that it’s jazz played without a predetermined set of chord changes. Pre- or not, the DCIC seems awfully determined not to change chords at all. It never wavers from G major, a bright, happy tonality that reinforces the kicky mood of the tune. (Soloists imply some other chords, but Kamman, and especially Brown, refuse to yield.) So it’s free, and it’s jazzy, but it ain’t free jazz. Label it as ye may.
CHEER FACTOR: 7/10. An improvised instrumental piece isn’t anybody’s idea of a traditional yuletide favorite. Moreover, the title and the Lennon passage are the only things about it that have anything to do with Christmas. But it’s nothing if not cheery, if in a low-key way. And certainly nobody can accuse it of cliché.https://open.spotify.com/user/h25fle74syvfg1znfvdw4k7rt/playlist/0Kv69fFayzIq2r1raLgJ90