The Peggy Lee Band: New Code
Drip Audio

Formed by the Vancouver-based cellist in 1998, The Peggy Lee Band began as a sextet but expanded in 2007 with the addition of tenor saxophone and a second electric guitar. Having previously issued three CDs on the Spool label, New Code represents the group's premiere recording as an octet. The hour-long set offers a comprehensive portrait of the group's range in seven Lee originals and three small-group improvisations—two trios and one duo—with all of it framed by covers of Bob Dylan's “All I Really Want to Do” and Kurt Weill's “Lost In The Stars.” One of the album's best pieces, the Dylan piece comes first, dressed up in a marvelous and sparkling arrangement. The rendition also shows off one of Peggy Lee's strengths: the melding of individual soloing with full-band arrangements with multiple players taking a front-line turn. In the two covers especially, her approach isn't unlike the kind adopted by Carla Bley in her own group arrangements and in those for Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. Elsewhere, the funereal (“Preparations”) and ruminative (“Floating Island”) rub shoulders with the tumultuous (“Not a Wake Up Call,” which burns up the tarmac with a wild meltdown of Frisell-like guitar playing, and the cubistic “Scribble Town,” whose guitar-and-cello skronk explodes into free tenor sax blowing reminiscent of a ‘60s improv session). The elegiac ballad “Walk Me Through” also makes a strong impression, in particular the lovely counterpoint the lush horns provide to the cello and guitar soloing, and “Lost in the Stars” can't help but stand out, given the melodic beauty of Weill's writing.

It doesn't hurt that she's assembled such a top-notch ensemble to accompany her: trumpeter Brad Turner, tenor saxophonist Jon Bentley, trombonist Jeremy Berkman, guitarists Ron Samworth and Tony Wilson, bassist André Lachance, and drummer Dylan van der Schyff. Lee's a strong soloist too, though she generally acts as one voice among many rather than a dominant lead (“Offshoot 2,” her duet with Turner, provides a good showcase for her solo playing). The horns play off one another magnificently, as do the guitarists who function as mutually supporting colourists and soloists throughout. Reminiscent of Paul Motian in his approach, van der Schyff eschews conventional swing and instead adopts the role of percussive commentator with cymbal splashes and fills resounding throughout the album's dozen pieces. More albums such as this one and anyone lingering confusion between Lee the cellist band leader and the Lee of “Fever” fame will become a thing of the distant past.

January 2009