Steuart Liebig & the Mentones

Locustland

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Steuart Liebig calls his group the Mentones, as the muscular alto sax of Tony Atherton pummels its way over a power trio of Joseph Beradi's hard-hitting drums, Bill Barrett's chromatic harmonica, and the leader's volcanic contrabass guitar. Liebig's sophisticated writing sets the tone with a rock-infused beat that pounds relentlessly. On "Mojave Boxcar," to cite an example, the strong, loud rhythm underlies and emphasizes an appealing jazz riff. The steady beat with the sax riffing above is reminiscent of similar experiments by the Italian saxophonist Carlo Actis Dato, but Liebig molds his own flavors with refreshing solos on contrabass guitar and the addition of the chromatic harmonica, which sounds something like an accordion. Occasionally, as on "Drifter," the usually effective Atherton blows without direction (perhaps in the spirit of the title, but nonetheless disconcerting), but the slack is picked up by the impressive chops of Barrett, whose intense solo steals the show. What is refreshing about it all is the way in which Liebig unabashedly explores the niche of jazz-rock fusion with a touch of the avant-garde in a mostly original manner. On "Honky Tonk Burn," for example, the catchy melody is gently subverted by the corny rhythm, while the more abstract "Westpoint, Mississippi" opens with delicate percussion before eventually hitting its stride with a solid solo from Barrett. In the end, the recording succeeds on several levels with its special arrangements, the complex ensemble voicing, and the often-superb solos. The pieces are deceptively simple, as there is almost always something going on beneath the surface, and the difficult rhythms are navigated with aplomb.

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