Wofo

Erratic Tails

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The restless creative imagination of Belgian bassist/composer/bandleader Xavier Verhelst takes his Wofo quintet in the direction of broadly appealing chamber jazz on the group's fourth offering, 2014's Erratic Tails. Actually, describing Wofo as a quintet isn't quite accurate here, as the core band of six-string bassist Verhelst, clarinetist Mattias Laga, tenor saxophonist Michel Mast, pianist Pieter Baert, and drummer Simon Raman is joined by "the Wofettes," a string trio comprising violinists Cécile Broché and Anouk Sanczuk and cellist Eline Duerinck. Verhelst's compositions and arrangements fully integrate the strings into the ensemble textures, evident from their prominence in the initial few minutes of the whimsically titled opening track, "The Rabbits Are Restless Tonight," first taking the spotlight and then coloring the backdrop behind Laga and Mast's counterpointed reeds. Evocative solos from Laga and Broché follow until the dynamic truly kicks up with full-band stop-and-start motifs leading into a swinging uptempo feature for Baert, making clear that this outfit might be chamberesque, but also demonstrates serious jazz cred. The segue of classical chamber stylings into (and out of) more overt jazz is particularly smooth on the balladic "Whether the Shrimps, or Crawfish Grey...," which commences as a thoroughly scored feature for cellist Duerinck before Mast and Laga offer up brief and lovely thematic improvisations. So perhaps it's most appropriate to think of this ensemble as an octet, playing music that is attractive and sometimes refined in tone, the type of jazz that incorporates classical string players with no difficulty whatsoever.

But to describe Verhelst's imagination as "restless" remains appropriate; he might not guide Wofo toward wild and woolly free jazz, but he does range far afield in search of stylistic influences -- exuberant Balkan folk in the case of "Galičnik," Latin and tango flavors in the multifaceted, polyrhythmic "Fesses Jaunâtres" (its title an apparent reference to the fading of bruises on somebody's posterior...perhaps it's best to just let that one sit) -- and the resultant unpredictability is a major part of the group's appeal. And while the proceedings may not become cacophonous, they're not too polite, either; Verhelst gives his bandmembers plenty of opportunities to strut. After a solo feature for the bassist and a moody, melancholic group intro, the nine-minute "Minor Mistakes" takes off with a sprightly theme and a steady groove over which Broché lets loose with genuine double-stopping fire, followed by an energetic Baert feature in which the pianist pushes the harmonic envelope over Verhelst and Raman's funked-up, cruising support. Mast steps to the forefront with his classic tone, too, although the tenor saxophonist's finest moment might come with his silken phrasing on the 9/8 "Enneapodia," also a fine vehicle for Verhelst's crisp, nimble, harmonics-rich melodicism. The closing elegiac "Koelkastsmeerbaar" -- on which Mast again acquits himself beautifully -- originally featured on the band's 2007 debut, The Complete Hamsessions, and the string-laden version here ably demonstrates Wofo's capacity for reinvention, even when turning back to material from their initial formative period.

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