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The outer limits getting pretty out there

Don't Shave the Feeling
Don't Shave the Feeling
By Ez Pour Spout

Love Slave Records: 2001

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The Only Juan
The Only Juan
By Jerry Granelli and Jamie Saft

Love Slave Records: 2001

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El Oh El Ay
El Oh El Ay
By J.A. Granelli and Mr. Lucky

Love Slave Records: 2001

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Shadowhead
Shadowhead
By Joe Gallant and Illuminati

Accurate Records: 2001

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These reviews first appeared in the June 24, 2002 edition of the American Reporter.

It takes a certain swagger to release a jazz instrumental album built around covers of well-known songs. It takes more than bit of musical bravado when the list of covers takes in bands like Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Cream and AC/DC. And when to that list you add songs by Bacharach and David, Mike Post and Frank Zappa – well, clearly you have a band not lacking in confidence.

The four members of the distinctively named Ez Pour Spout are not to be intimidated, it would seem. Their album "Don't Shave the Feeling" takes songs ranging from the metal anthem "Back in Black" to the easy listening of "Walk on By" and reinvents each, ultimately re-making it into something uniquely Ez Pour Spout.

Now, this album was released last year, but reviewing it did seem intimidating. Rock? Jazz? That tired old cliche, fusion?

Never did figure out how exactly to label this music, but also discovered that it was equally impossible to stop listening to it. Perhaps no CD has ever been listened to so many times over so long a period by a single critic before being reviewed.

The thing is that while these songs are all familiar, these covers are no tribute. While each song is recognizable – most instantly so – they are turned outside-in, twisted around, remade into the image of Ez Pour Spout.

For instance, on AC/DC's "Back in Black," Briggan Krauss takes the vocal part and transforms it to his alto sax. This works mostly because the rhythm section of J.A. Granelli on bass and drummer John Mettam create a backdrop that's just as intense as anything AC/DC ever recorded, but completely different. It's not heavy metal anymore, but just as driving – heavy jazz, perhaps.

And on the opening track, Mike Posts's "Theme from the A-Team," the main theme is left basically untouched, with Krauss again taking the lead on his alto sax. But then Curtis Hasselbring takes over the lead on guitar, and turns it six ways from Tuesday before handing it off to Jamie Saft on keyboards, who pushes a bit more before reining it back in to hand off to Krauss for the closing – again straight.

Led Zep's "Kashmir" gets the straightest reading of any song here; yet, with Krauss again taking the vocal lines on saxophone, it gets an ethereal sheen not even hinted at on the original. And while Hasselbring reconstructed Jimmy Page's opening guitar tracks almost note-for-note perfect, it's Saft on keyboards who takes Page's solos here. Behind it all, Granelli and Mettam provide the same pounding rhythm that John Paul Jones and John Bonham laid down on the original. The result is something that is disturbingly reminiscent while startlingly new.

After "Kashmir" ends a string of four hard-driving rock covers, the Bacharach-David chestnut "Don't Make Me Over" starts a run of three easy listening songs. Krauss' saxophone again sits in for the vocal, this time adding more soul and feeling than the one-dimensional Dionne Warwick could have ever predicted existed in this tune.

"Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" is then re-invented as a bossa nova with Saft comping lightly on keyboards behind Krauss' alto sax and Hasselbring's trombone (and is that a kazoo?), before the whole thing devolves into an atonal free jazz blow. It's lounge music with a bit of barbed wire strung along the top, and incredibly fun.

Finally, Warwick is again one-upped with a shy, hesitating version of "Walk on By" that always leads up to and teases with the chorus, but consistently avoids providing the kind of predictable climax the song is built around – the kind of thing Booker T and the MGs liked to do with their covers: create your own zenith outside the constrictions of the composition.

Cream's "Politician" is a return to the sound of the opening tracks, with Krauss' sax now taking the place of Eric Clapton's guitar (which leaves one wondering why they couldn't find a Jeff Beck song to cover, and thus include every guitarist from the Yardbirds). This song is perhaps the weakest on the album, as it's somewhat deconstructed performance doesn't stand up well compared to Cream's thickly layered original.

And having Krauss take what was the lead guitar part on Zappa's "My Guitar ..." also doesn't seem to work all that well – the alto lacks the gravitas to hold the song together, and doesn't seem able to establish its own space over top the manic drumming of Mettam.

But this is one of the most interesting albums to come out in years – it is every bit as good as the experimental explorations of folks like Kip Hanrahan or Henry Threadgill, if a bit more accessible due to the familiar nature of the songs tackled.

     ~ ~ ~

If Ez Pour Spout is a bit out there, then "The Only Juan" by Ez Pour Spout keyboardist Jamie Saft and drummer Jerry Granelli (father of Ez Pour Spout bassist J.A. Granelli) is in another musical dimension.

This is the perfect album for those adventurous souls who find Threadgill too limiting, who think the late guitarist Sonny Sharrock was too structured, who view Ornette Coleman as an uncluttered traditionalist.

With song titles like "gong," "boinger," "soloduet" and "baby san" – well, actually, those songs are really good descriptions of the music. It's all very abstract and maybe a bit absurdist, and yet it's interesting enough to hold your attention.

A couple of tracks even approach, well, perhaps not accessibility, but at least an intersection with the world the rest of us live in. "difficult dread" has a soft reggae beat to it, and what sounds suspiciously like a melody.

Heck, they even have two covers on here – Joni Mitchell's "Rainy Day House" (which is markedly slow and melancholy, as if Keith Jarrett were strung out on sedatives), and Journey's "Don't Stop" – which sounds like, well, Journey ... only with Yoko Ono sitting in. On acid. And mushrooms. And, unfortunately, the microphone way too close to Granelli's drum set – the distortion will tear out your speakers if you play this too loud, which is a shame because Granelli just beats the tar out of his skins in one of the thrashiest drum solos laid down in years.

     ~ ~ ~

At about the same time that Ez Pour Spout and Granelli/Saft were releasing the above two discs last year, Saft and J.A. Granelli had yet another project going, Mr. Lucky, which resulted in the release of "El Oh El Ay." If not quite as obtuse as "The Only Juan," it's still very free form, very loosely structured, very experimental.

More of an ensemble project than the other two Love Slave Records releases, Mr. Lucky is built around the interplay of the different instruments – Granelli fils' bass, Saft's organ, David Tronzo's slide guitar and the fiendish drums of Kenny Wolleson.

So smooth are the musicians involved, so tightly is their playing intertwined, that listening to these tracks is like overhearing a conversation among four close friends. They finish each others' statements, quietly murmer their approval behind their friends' arguments, and gently check each other on occasion.

They range all over the place stylistically as well. On "Tronz" and "Lane," they delve into the blues; the opening cover of the Adler/Ross standard, "Whatever Lola Wants," has a nice Latin touch to it; and Henry Mancini's title track becomes a counter-intuitive dirge in their hands. And whatever Charlie Parker's "Red Cross" is here, it's far different from what Bird originally made it.

     ~ ~ ~

Guitarist/pornographer Joe Gallant is one weird guy. His most recent release, "Shadowhead," includes a link to the label's web site – which is also Gallant's New York porn site. Where, it turns out, you can buy the CD, in addition to the usual assortment of videos.

Still, even leaving Mr. Gallant's day job (we presume) out of this, "Shadowhead" is weird enough on its own to merit a good listen.

Reminding a bit of the late '60s/early '70s experiments at melding poetry and music, "Shadowhead" has a wide-eyed, fresh feel to it, a kind of optimism that if you just keep pushing and exploring something good will come about.

In his use of strings, there is a good deal of Electric Light Orchestra's early recordings (which grew out of the experiments Paul McCartney and Beatles' producer George Martin did on "Abbey Road"). In his placement of spoken word verse atop the music, there is a bit of '70s black pride poet Gil Scott-Heron.

But mostly there's a refreshing sense of "What the hell" about this entire CD – as in, "What the hell – let's try this and see where it leads."

So there's rock 'n' roll here, and Latin rhythms, and jazz extrapolations. We get funk, and chamber music, and tone poetry. There is some great musicianship, and wonderful beats dominate throughout. Sometimes it doesn't work – but that's the ballast that allows for the wonderful sense of magic and creativity when it does.