By the time I was a kid, “jazz” equated to the trappings of A/C radio, a “punchy funk,” maybe, with spicy Mediterranean colors, a couple “ooh-la-las” thrown in like sweet barbs; Chrysalis Records, etc. It was a bloated, overproduced, objectively ugly sound. But I came to love it with all my heart. And so I’ll never forget the first time I heard “Rainforest.”
The jazzbos never liked fusion, branding it something like a sort of kind of heresy. And so, to paraphrase Xgau: boo-boo on them, that’s fine. Every once in a while, though, I guarantee you, jazzbos, you get an itch and notice a second figure in the mirror…
Like good noodles, it can be hard to find fusion that doesn’t wilt into self-parody, for better or otherwise. And so I, playing the screen game, happened upon Vocabulary, prepared for the best and hoping for the worst. But it is a unique record: It doesn’t just recapitulate the phylogeny of Seattle jazz itself; it also carries this sonic history with a considered, individual gait. With its experimental, techno-inspired flavor, it gives new meaning to the term club jazz.
It must be said: though Seattle has a rich history in jazz, you probably wouldn’t know it today. In the post-war era, police tolerated a burgeoning after-hours scene in what is now the Chinatown/International District. At its peak, more than two dozen jazz clubs existed along Jackson St. alone, including ones like the Black and Tan. A who’s who of greats all got their start here: Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Bumps Blackwell, Ernestine Anderson, et al.
It is this heavier-than-heaven tradition that Vocabulary initially seems to tackle, which is a tall order to be sure. But it nails cold fusion: after a bait-switched introductory statement (“feat. Phil”), Vocabulary gets going with a flourish of keys. Like a medieval mode, it outlays the outset. It’s soon matched by blunt, refracted rays of percussion, rapid-fire thrums rum-a-pum-pumming against your bare shoulders. And it’s all uptempo: a positively frightening start, all arpeggiated, falling short of barre-bary.
The following tracks initially seem to retrace this model in their own ways. That is, until we reach “Things Will Change,” where, with that coprophagic grin of a title, things really begin to change. The record gets funkier. Eric B.-like scratches emerge like charmed snakes. With precise spin and velocity, the blunt rhythmic repetition enforces the un-codified, unspoken jazz constitution: change over time. Summery sus chords abound. And so Vocabulary embraces a careful, but hardly turgid, experimentation. The music, while dabbling in various genera, manages to remain true to its own musical center of gravity.
As if aware of its place on the shelf, Vocabulary expresses a sonic vision of what jazz can be, but doesn’t necessarily have to be. And so it is modestly produced. Hardly rote, the improvisations feel righteously inspired, but never arrogant or bloated. The sketches are certainly complex, but still feel loose enough to swing. And isn’t that what jazz is about? Swing? Gil Evans once said, “jazz has always used the rhythm of the time, whatever people danced to.” In that spirit, Vocabulary reflects the richly variegated rhythms of our time.