Trey Anastasio's The Horseshoe Curve is a collection of cuts taken off the shelf as a stopgap between the guitarist's "real" albums -- at release time, Anastasio was in the fourth month of a court-ordered yearlong drug rehab program. It's too bad in a sense, because it's such a dazzling recording, taken from a period between 2002-2004 when he was touring and recording with this woolly mammoth of a band; it's also far above the level of the two recordings he released during that period: Shine (2005) and Bar 17 (2006). A pair of these cuts, "The 5th Round" and the title track, were taken from a live gig in Pittsburgh. The rest of the set was done in a studio, and beginning with the burning bubbler "Sidewalks of San Francisco" that kicks things off (with a smoking little flute break that counters the heavy organ and snare backbeat on the tune, and feels as if it came from a Traffic live date), one wonders for the love of Pete why he shelved it. Anastasio doesn't wail and whomp with his knottier-than-Gordian guitar licks here. He leaves that to a weighted horn section that includes Peter Apfelbaum, Andy Moroz, Dave Grippo, Jen Hartswick, and a rhythm section that includes bassist Tony Markellis, Ray Paczkowski on keys, drummer Russ Lawton, and famed N.Y.C. downtown scene percussionist Cyro Baptista. Musically, the sounds are based on the heavy horn charts of Afro-beat, burning Latin salsa, and J.B.'s-style funk. Add to this the wanton bass throb of Markellis, who could have played with Herbie Hancock's Headhunters or Miles Davis' On the Corner band (he's got both the sophistication and the dead-on inner guidance groove system in place), and what you have is a lethal combination of groove and deadly jazz-funk.
Anastasio does cut loose on the live tracks (there's a real Santana "Soul Sacrifice" feel to "The 5th Round"), and lets the world know he's got the chops to lead this band, but the real worth of the material is in how these cats play as a band. Even on rudimentary jams, such as "Burlap Sack & Pumps," the drummers keep the thing churning and turning with complementary contrapuntal breakbeats! There are some killer improv moments in the studio as "Olivia"'s two main sections melt together and become a smoldering jam. It begins with the Afro-funk horns and Anastasio's noisy riff playing call and response with one another. The organ swirls around the fringes and the drum breaks and percussion turn the chart inside out, offering a Latin rhumba rhythm, bringing the rest of the ensemble on board, and transforming the track. It eventually fades and becomes a free jazz workout that gives way into full-bore African jazz -- think Pierre Dørge's New Jungle Orchestra with Dudu Pukwana and Johnny Dyani electrified rather than Fela. The cosmic angular acid-drenched vanguard jazz that introduces "Noodle Rave" feels more like a disciplined Sun Ra chart before the tune is given breath and life and becomes a modal Latin jazz tune. The reggae chart at the top of "Tube Top Pony" is a sure crowd-pleaser with its leisurely stroll and steamy backbeat. The set closes unexpectedly with a knotty jazz tune that walks between modal and noir-ish post-bop. The bottom line is that The Horseshoe Curve becomes -- perhaps unintentionally -- one of the finest moments of Anastasio's post-Phish solo career. This one is absolutely essential not only for his fans, but for anyone interested in any of the above musics. A must.