Metro Detroit gave rise to jazz masters Tommy Flanagan and Yusef Lateef, the Motown sounds of the Supremes and the Four Tops, and the proto-punk of the MC5 and the Stooges, so the Detroit-bred polystylistic cross-bred jazz mélange of Blue Dog would at first glance seem to be a natural fit for the Motor City region and its wide-ranging musical diversity. On the 1994 Knitting Factory Works album What Is Anything, the quartet of keyboardist/composer Mick Dobday, saxophonist Michael Graye, guitarist Erik Gustafson, and drummer Alex Trajano (with a handful of bassists, including Griot Galaxy's Jaribu Shahid, a member of various Roscoe Mitchell ensembles) proved they could in fact do practically anything, effortlessly seguing between such self-explanatory titles as "Flamenco," "Tango," "Tarentella," and "Bolero" during the 23-minute "Duende (Western Suite)." The band name references Blue as in Blue Monk and Dog as in Black Dog, and the titular leadoff track indeed swerves back and forth between swinging piano jazz and screaming metal, before showcasing Trajano flailing away on the skins over a chunky, speaker-blowing guitar-bass vamp. The Latin jazz swinger "Radio Bomba" displays Dobday's harmonic sophistication and chops and the smooth stylings of saxophonist Graye -- until a sudden turn into James Bond spy music, which shouldn't come as a surprise for this band. "E=MC5" kicks off by kicking out the jams (no surprise there either), but then turns toward funk and flirts with C&W twang, honky tonk piano, more spy music, and unison group vocal heave-ups, while briefly quoting "The Girl from Ipanema" and "I Shot the Sheriff"; the core of the tune is modal funk-jazz, however, and any MC5 connection vanished from the picture almost immediately.
"Duende (Western Suite)," for all its soundtracky dips into myriad genres and styles, flows somewhat more organically -- the music has room to breathe, and Gustafson proves himself an able acoustic picker and tasteful electric jazzman when stepping away from speaker-shattering, bone-crunching Detroit rockin' mode. Album highlight "Minor Threat" swings credibly and smooths out the jarring juxtapositions somewhat, and the organ-fueled blues-rock at the end is a nice touch (somewhat suggesting Wayne Horvitz), but the two minutes of silence prior to the sudden arrival of "E=MC5 [Radio Edit]" are a bit irritating. With Blue Dog arriving on the heels of John Zorn's file card experiments Spillane and Godard and Naked City's whirlwind jump cuts, it's easy to discern why the Knitting Factory's Michael Dorf might have taken interest in the band's Motor City-bred crazy quilt, seemingly cut from the same cloth as downtown New Yorker and Knit denizen Zorn. As for Blue Dog's own success on the home front, they had their supporters and friends, but their sensibility was perhaps ultimately more Houston Street than Cass Corridor. And for all the aforementioned musical diversity, metro Detroit's discrete music communities have often kept one another at arm's length, reflecting southeastern Michigan's entrenched economic and social dynamics. Against that backdrop, Blue Dog's stylistic boundary-crossing was a nice idea.