“Mingus is an influence on anyone who writes jazz,” says Voelker. Well, maybe, but not enough. There’s James Merenda’s Masked Marvels — Boston’s Mingus specialists, who’ve featured all the guys in Gypsy Schaeffer at one time or another. But, other than in the Mingus Big Band, not too many play his music or, in Gypsy Schaffer’s case, recall his spirit in their original pieces. Like Mingus, Gypsy Schaeffer fiddle with standard song form and standard rhythms. Voelker’s “Difference of Opinion” gives the rhythm section the option of departing from the fast 4/4 secondary theme to play the slower 3/4 rhythm of the primary theme under the soloist at any moment without notice.
The forms can be as deceptively straightforward as “What’s the Deal?” or as expansive and neck-breakingly tricky as “Under Construction,” Voelker’s leadoff tune from last year’s Portamental. (Both CDs are on the band’s own PeaceTime Records.) Here’s an up-tempo tune with another classic AABA opening, but it evolves into a 36-bar steeplechase with a tricky stop-time section smack in the middle and recurring double-time passages. You feel the form under the improvisations rather than count it, and that little stop time recurs in every chorus. The stop time was written as a break for solo bass, but Voelker changed his mind in rehearsal. “I said, ‘Let’s all try playing it,’ and then I said, ‘Okay, we’re going to play it every time,’ and the band said, ‘Even during the solos?’ And I said, ‘Definitely during the solos.’ ”
On Portamental, the band have gotten even freer with form. Bassist Jef Charland and drummer Chris Punis are also writing. (Original bassist Edward Perez left after the first CD.) Punis’s “Ugly Hand” mixes 6/4 and 5/4 with an obsessive riff that could be out of Steve Lacy or Anthony Braxton. (“Very hard to play,” Voelker assures me.) And Charland’s “Portamental” alternates free solo sections with portamenti (thus the title) by Yennior and Charland, the former’s trombone sliding up and down like a sci-fi theremin, Voelker playing a glissy alto like a noir blues in the fog.
The collective spirit of Gypsy Schaeffer (their name is a nod to a famed New Orleans “sportin’ house” that featured music by Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet) and their distinctive group sound also set them apart — they’re not a star soloist with a band, “not someone’s project,” as Voelker says. “We collaborate on the arrangements,” Charland says after their set at the Firehouse. “That gives us all authorship of the tunes.”
It’s almost distressing the number of first-rate musicians who continue to pour out of the local music schools — what will happen to them all? To wit: TheNew Old School, the fourth CD on Berklee’s student-run Jazz Revelation Records. On the opening track, the up-tempo “Stop Requested,” alto-saxophonist Alex Terrier tears through the changes with the power and articulation of Kenny Garrett born anew. Singer Sara Serpa matches a light, floating voice with incisive phrasing and dead-on natural pitch in Francisco Ferro’s “Boiled Water,” an eventful narrative for 10-piece band. Percussionist Marcelo Woloski and bassist Andres Rotmistrovsky in their band Tantanakuy tweak pan-American folk and pop with their own attractive big-jazz-band moves. And guitarist Jake Hertzog’s varied, spare attack and knotty writing take jazz-rock fusion in yet another provocative direction. Hertzog and Tantanakuy celebrate the release of the Berklee CD with a free show at the Beehive in the South End this Tuesday.
GYPSY SCHAEFFER | Titus Sparrow Park, West Newton St at Columbus Ave, Boston | July 11: 6:30-8 pm | Fireplace Restaurant, 1634 Beacon St, Brookline | July 18 | 617.975.1900 | JAKE HERTZOG + TANTANAKUY | Beehive, 541 Tremont St, Boston | July 10 | 617.423.00069