Flat Earth Society

Call Sheets, Riders & Chicken Mushroom: Live Recordings 2000-2012

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For the 2014 compilation Call Sheets, Riders & Chicken Mushroom, Flat Earth Society leader Peter Vermeersch dug through the Flemish avant big band's archive of live performances from between 2000 and 2012, settling on nearly 80 minutes of choice bits from across the stylistic and geographic map. The selections -- recorded in Belgium, as expected, but also Groningen across the border in the Netherlands, the Vortex Jazz Club across the Channel in London, and the Kennedy Center across the pond in Washington, D.C. -- display a head-spinning assortment of skewed large-ensemble jazz, brought to life by the illustrious FES and various guest musician co-conspirators. "Fes 9," composed by guest pianist Uri Caine, is a musical mash-up that shoehorns a panoply of styles -- march, waltz, swing, cartoony fanfares, and ultimately fist-pounding pianistic mayhem -- into one five-minute helping. Staying in march territory for a full 80 seconds, FES cover German-Argentine modern classical composer Mauricio Kagel (undoubtedly an inspiration to Vermeersch and company for his spirit of experimentalism, theatricality, and absurdism) with an uptempo reading of the fractured "Marsch 4" from 10 Marches to Miss the Victory (1979). For sheer whacked-out silliness, though, nothing else here quite matches the somewhat lunatic take of "La Tactique du Gendarme," originally sung by Bourvil in André Berthomieu's 1949 comedy film Le Roi Pandore and attacked with barely contained enthusiasm in a French music hall style by Flemish singer/actor Wim Opbrouck as FES assume the role of a rollicking pit orchestra with ridiculous relish.

Among the album's vocal numbers, it would be hard to get further away from "Gendarme" in mood and attitude than "Hilton's Heaven," a dark, low, deliberately paced piece of spooky, bluesy jazz in which singer Anja Kowalski, with both smokiness and edginess in her delivery, gets inside the head of suicidal Dutch rock & roller Herman Brood; Toots Thielemans, arguably Belgium's most famous jazz musician, lends his inimitable harmonica tone and phrasing to this number. Finnish musical chameleon Jimi Tenor is scattered across the program as composer and featured guest on several tracks, including the heavy rockish riff-driven opening instrumental "Knight Theme" and "Mesmerize Me," a vehicle for his campy lounge-soul-funk vocal stylings. The driving vamp of Tenor's "Masterstone" provides fine support for him to step out with a roughly textured alien glissing and boinking solo on his custom-made "photophone," a light-controlled synthesizer contraption. And Dutch improvising cellist Ernst Reijseger displays stunning chops in the concluding "Heaven on Earth," a dramatic track dominated by Wim Willaert's declamatory reading of British poet Roger McGough's text, as translated by Flemish poet Herman de Coninck. Also drawing fully instrumental material from X-Legged Sally's Slow-Up ("Ffwd") through FES' Cheer Me, Perverts! (the Greek cuisine-inspired "Kotopoulopology"), the non-chronological sequencing suggests an attempt to wrestle the package into a coherent flow; a herculean task -- if not utter impossibility. Call Sheets, Riders & Chicken Mushroom could be the most incoherent FES album yet. Consider that to be a ringing endorsement.

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