Dakota Suite: The Hearts of Empty
Karaoke Kalk

What a splendid surprise this tenth full-length outing by Dakota Suite turns out to be. I, for one, certainly didn't expect that its latest music would be presented in the form of a “jazz trio” recording (in band member Chris Hooson's own words, the album captures “a late-night smoky jazz side to Dakota Suite”). It would seem that the album requires some explanation, given its unusual genesis. While recording the material that would end up as The End of Trying, Hooson heard in its mournful piano-and-cello arrangements an analogical jazz-oriented piano recording, and so asked David Buxton to compose songs that would essentially be “a modern jazz record as envisaged through Dakota Suite glasses.” Using some of David Darling's pizzicato playing from the original recording sessions, Buxton proceeded to compose the pieces now heard on The Hearts of Empty and recorded its piano playing over two nights.

That the album will be something special is intimated at the outset when the first sound one hears on the album is the upper-register groan of what's either a cello or acoustic bass in “Easy Steps” (a tongue-in-cheek nod to “Giant Steps” perhaps?), and even more surprising is that the tune turns out to be a solo setting for said instrument (it can be at times a challenge to identify whether it's an acoustic double bass or Darling's cello that's heard on the recording, and no info is included on the review copy to clarify the issue). The even shorter following piece, “Cataluña,” adds acoustic piano and drums—brushes and cymbals primarily—to the bass, establishing the jazz trio format to which the rest of the album largely hews. The elegance and sophistication of the piano playing naturally calls Bill Evans to mind: one could just as easily imagine it's Evans hunched over the keyboard adding those refined clusters to the slow blues of “Eskimo Nebula” as any Dakota Suite member; the relaxed and bluesy swing of “Vermont Canyon Road,” on the other hand, includes playing that's reminscent in its elegance of Keith Jarrett. The acoustic bass is sometimes heard in multi-layered form, as if the trio has expanded to accommodate the presence of a second bassist, a move that enhances an already rich sound; on the title track's bluesy rumination, for instance, electric bass replaces the acoustic but to equally good effect.

An occasional electronic dimension seeps into the recording (e.g., the ambient swirls wafting through the backgrounds of “Eskimo Nebula” and “The Black Pyramid”) as if to remind us that it is, after all, the work of Dakota Suite and not some longstanding Blue Note or ECM outfit. That's most explicitly felt when near the album's center, “The Ladder” takes us out of the jazz lounge temporarily for a Cluster-styled electronic vignette of chiming, heavily-reverbed keyboards. One thing separating the settings on The Hearts of Empty from the protoypical jazz trio recording is that no Dakota Suite piece exceeds five minutes, and hence the album eschews extended solo spotlights. That fourteen tracks are fitted into a forty-six-minute recording time proves to be no great handicap, however, in terms of listening satisfaction as its sparse piano cascades, drum brushes, and acoustic bass amount to a thoroughly entrancing collection.

June 2011