The first question one has to ask after hearing Roy Nathanson's Sotto Voce all the way through, letting the stereo move along into silence, is "Where does music like this come from?" And then one has to note that there is no other record to be played on this day, because in Sotto Voce is everything music should be and often is. Here is a "jazz" band that features saxophones (Nathanson), trombone (Curtis Fowlkes), violin (Sam Bardfeld), bass (Tim Kiah), and a human beatbox (Napoleon Maddox). Every member of this band recites Nathanson's words or sings them. This is art, but it doesn't belong in the National Gallery or even the Museum of Modern Art. It belongs in the street, in the gutters, and in the living rooms and basements of every house in America where funky-butt street rhythms, foot-stomping joy, and wacky childlike singalongs are important matters of everyday life -- and perhaps more importantly, it should be in those places where these things are not. Take a listen to the reading of "Sunny," the old Bobby Hebb nugget, previously done best by Jack McDuff and David "Fathead" Newman on Double Barrelled Soul back in the '60s -- but theirs had no vocal! It begins with feet on the floor and Nathanson's bluesed-out soul wail on the alto before they dig into the verse and chorus as a band, with Bardfeld playing the violin like a guitar and Fowlkes accenting the rhythmic intensity of Maddox. But then, Nathanson starts singing! He gets it, the Hebb vision of the blues, and adds funk and beat-hop to the bottom. This is no novelty; it is song itself. The evidence is in the reading of Roland Kirk's "The Inflated Tear," introduced by a classicist's violin and poetry, where spoken words get to Kirk's grief and determination before becoming sung call-and-response choruses in the jazz idiom. It doesn't give up Kirk's intensity either, as Nathanson double-tracks his alto. The flipout is that it is immediately followed by a noir-ish reading of "Sunrise, Sunset" that sounds like none in the American canon. This baby isn't all covers, however, as the final three cuts are all originals. The big organic FONK on "It's Alright" ushers in a plainspoken short story that is both immediate, reminiscent, and angular. Meaning is trotted out between the words themselves and the various instrumental passages -- and the call and response between Nathanson and Fowlkes is a fingerpopper's wet dream. This bad boy is essential for anybody who digs musical surprise, creativity, and the impulse of originality.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek