Brass Mask: Spy Boy

The octet Brass Mask, which boasts a seven horns-and-percussionist line-up, isn't without a precedent or two. Lester Bowie assembled a similar group years ago with his Brass Fantasy, but the Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter is, of course, unfortunately no longer with us and neither is his pet project. And so it is that we welcome the concept's resurrection courtesy of reeds player Tom Challenger, who formed Brass Mask in 2012, and his band's debut album Spy Boy. The group's leader bring years of experience to the project, but so, too, do the other members: reeds players George Crowley and Dan Nicholls, trumpeters Rory Simmons and Alex Bonney, trombonist Nathaniel Cross, tuba player Theon Cross, and percussionist John Blease.

It's interesting that Challenger cites Henry Threadgill's Just The Facts and Pass The Bucket (specifically its harmonic counterpoint and ensemble playing) as an influence on his writing for the recording, as the Threadgill band that Spy Boy more calls to mind is his Very Very Circus outfit and its 1991 album Spirit Of Nuff...Nuff. In Brass Mask pieces such as “Shallow Water” and “Rain Rain Rain,” Cross's tuba, assuming the bass role, barrels forth with the same kind of confident bravado the two tuba players brought to the Very Very Circus album. The influence is also audible in the off-kilter tempo fluctuations of “Francis P” and its woozy flirtation with avant-jazz conventions. But Threadgill isn't the only touchstone evoked by Spy Boy: hints of Albert Ayler, reggae, and African music surface, and one also encounters, in “Indian Red,” the blues-gospel testifying of a New Orleans band and, during “I Thank You Jesus,” the no-holds-barred moan of the church spiritual.

The arrangements clearly weren't thrown together on the fly, as the suave interplay and reggae-tinged funk rhythms of “Onnellinen” make clear at the album's start. Right away, one becomes aware of the careful balance between ensemble playing and individual soloing the group is aiming for. Unison horn lines repeatedly provide a supple cushion for the free-wheeling soloists to bounce off of, while Blease and Cross power the music with tight support. In fact, the octet's sound is so rich during the album's longest piece, “Wizards,” the arrangement calls to mind nothing less than the sultry textures Miles Davis's nonet brought to its own Birth of the Cool sessions. Brass Mask's performance, like the album in general, offers a multi-sensory delight of bold stylistic range and ambition.

November 2013