The Daniel Bennett Group: The Mystery at Clown Castle
Manhattan Daylight Media

Describing The Daniel Bennett Group's The Mystery at Clown Castle as Pop Jazz is a risky move as it suggests some degree of similarity between its music and the kind associated with Smooth Jazz. Even so, The Mystery at Clown Castle might be deemed Pop Jazz in key respects: while the quartet's largely instrumental music is jazz-like in certain ways, it's also melodically driven, catchy, and pop-like in its structural form and concision; in addition, while the musicians—Bennett joined by electric guitarist Nat Janoff, electric and acoustic bassist Eddy Khaimovich, and drummer Matthew Feick—do solo, their solos are brief by jazz standards. And despite being identified as a jazz group, the rhythm section more often plays rock-styled grooves in these tunes than those of a typical jazz kind; the guitarist, too, isn't afraid to flex his rock muscles, as shown by the raunchy solo he adds to “Paul Platypus.”

Bennett and company seem intent on covering as many stylistic bases as can be accommodated by a thirty-five-minute recording, among them calypso, rock, blues, gospel, improv, and, of course, jazz. The Mystery at Clown Castle is not the group's first recording but, in fact, its sixth, with Clockhead Goes to Camp preceding it by a couple of years. One might expect that such irreverently titled albums might contain equally irreverent music, and on that count one wouldn't be wrong: the music on The Mystery at Clown Castle is refreshingly unpretentious, with its personality intimated by track titles such as “Strange Jim and the Zebra” and “Paul Platypus.” Bennett's primary instrument is alto sax, but the versatile leader's also credited with flute, piccolo, clarinet, oboe, and piano. In those tracks where his flute assumes the lead (“Nine Piglets,” for example), the group's sound undergoes an immediate shift that sees its jazz persona morphing into a prog-pop outfit, something not unlike Jethro Tull playing one of its vocal-less numbers.

As far as specific tracks are concerned, “The Clown Chemist” seduces the listener with sunny, alto sax-driven melodies and a buoyant feel before changing gears midway through for a piccolo-led episode powered by a rock groove. Slightly mysterious by comparison, “The Spinning Top Stood Still” draws the listener in with sinuous melodies, a compelling alto turn by the leader, and energized solos by Janoff and Khaimovich—lots of activity packed into four minutes. The band's wilder side is documented on the free improvs “Inside the Outside Interlude” and “Outside the Inside Outro,” both of which feature pianist Jason Yeager. He also memorably contributes to “Uncle Muskrat,” a gospel-infused composition that showcases the group appealingly.

Pretty much everything on the album succeeds, with one exception: the two tracks involving Britt Melewski, who contributes spoken word to “Minor Leaguer” and “Morning.” While his robotic delivery in the former doesn't entirely undermine the piece, the otherwise promising “Morning” is marred by his shouting presence. Though the band deserves credit for being open to different possibilities, the tracks would probably work better as purely instrumental settings featuring the quartet only. Two missteps don't cast an overly dark shadow, however, across an album that otherwise has much to recommend it.

May 2015