The Muffins

Double Negative

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Based on the evidence presented in Bandwidth, the Muffins' 2002 reunion CD (and their first recording in 20 years), the group chose to define itself as a competent, professional jazz/prog rock quartet featuring the saxes of bandmembers Tom Scott and Dave Newhouse, with rhythmic support from Billy Swann on bass and Paul Sears on drums. The original compositions were pleasantly melodic, with modest improvisational elements and occasional tentative avant-garde gestures (e.g., riff-based skronking from one or both of the saxes). In short, a good thing of its kind, but nothing to inspire irrational devotion. Having released Bandwidth, the group members might have faded back into their pre-reunion routines or hung out together to generate a few more decent status quo recordings. But instead, they upped the ante, and this new CD is fresh and genuinely exciting, with great writing by both Scott and Newhouse, more textural variety in the arrangements, and more conviction, swagger, and even passion in the playing. Perhaps the group members needed to get past the nostalgia factor and the sheer novelty of being together again before they were able to flex their creative muscle and move ahead. Invited guests on this new recording include two members of the Sun Ra Arkestra, veteran alto saxman Marshall Allen and baritone player Knoel Scott, and while Allen and Scott are far from dominant (they only appear on three pieces), the ability of the music to accommodate their wild and woolly energy says volumes about the easy confidence and vision of the working quartet. The 17 selections in the generous program include far too many highlights to mention, with a range of expression that moves back and forth between relatively straight-ahead jazz, jazz fusion, funk, moody and dissonant impressionism, and a handful of anthemic prog rock declarations. An additional trombone on a number of pieces, a string section of violin, viola, and cellos (featured on "They Come on Unknown Nights"), some tasteful synth programming here and there, and judicious studio overdubbing by quartet members all give the musical mix some real richness. It also makes possible a potentially huge, expansive sound, which is anchored even more solidly by the frequent use of baritone saxes and a bass clarinet. This CD really has it all -- breadth, depth, intelligence, and creativity. Rather than a mere reprise of past glories, it represents the Muffins' bold thrust into the 21st century.

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