Gregg Belisle-Chi: I Sang to You and the Moon
Gregg Belisle-Chi

Tyrant Lizard: Tyrant Lizard
Tyrant Lizard Bandcamp

When reviewing Gregg Belisle-Chi's 2015 release Tenebrae, some degree of similarity between his guitar playing and Bill Frisell's couldn't help but be noticed. On Belisle-Chi's follow-up to that fine release, a slightly different connection declares itself, but one less having to do with a similarity in guitar sound. No, what I Sang to You and the Moon shares with Frisell's work is an adventurous spirit and openness to artistic risk, moves that in the long run bring greater rewards than immediate gratification, financial or otherwise. Anyone familiar with Frisell's output knows how splendid a career he's had, one filled with all manner of unexpected choices, and Belisle-Chi appears, at least on the basis of the two solo albums and his playing in Tyrant Lizard, to be on a similarly bold path. Certainly I Sang to You and the Moon suggests he's on his way, given the musicians involved: vocalist Chelsea Crabtree, trumpeter Raymond Larsen, bassist Carmen Rothwell, and the guitarist himself. What makes listening to the recording alongside Tyrant Lizard's debut especially interesting is that the latter outfit features the same personnel as the one on the solo date minus Crabtree.

One of the key distinguishing aspects of I Sang to You and the Moon is that it lyrically draws upon the work of American poet Carl Sandburg, a choice that in itself established a critical starting point for the music's genesis. Words of such vivid character immediately suggest specific directions for the compositions, and Belisle-Chi was wise to follow that lead. The result is an artful and harmonically satisfying song-cycle of literary scope that straddles multiple genres and traditions, from chamber jazz and improvisation to poetry and singer-songwriting. All such elements come together in nine settings that collectively are unlike anything else you'll probably hear this year.

Consistent with a nature that puts the project first, the guitarist seldom solos on the album (his turn on “Dream Girl” a rare example), content as he is to guide the musicians through the material and enhance it with electric and acoustic guitar textures. Though there's a studious quality to the performances, the album was recorded in just two days, all of it live but for some guitar overdubs (audible when Belisle-Chi's electric and acoustic guitars appear together during “Plowboy,” for instance).

That the musical and emotional connections between Belisle-Chi and Crabtree are strong is indicated by the fact that the married couple have been collaborating in various playing contexts since 2009. She sings with unerring pitch on the songs, and her hushed delivery, so refreshingly free of unnecessary embellishment, proves critical to the music's impact, and, as demonstrated by their own empathetic engagement with the material, Rothwell and Larsen show themselves to be equally important parts of the album equation. All four voices are integral to the presentation, making for a richly symbiotic result.

The painterly sensitivity the musicians bring to the project is evident from the moment “Between Two Hills” introduces the album. Instrumentally, the song gains shape from the contributions of the three players and the way their individual strands coalesce into something greater than the parts, while Crabtree's soft voice acts as a unifying force collecting the separate elements meaningfully into a whole. It's a strategy repeated throughout, with obvious variations, of course.

A slightly more soulful vocal quality emerges in “I Sang,” which also features one of the album's few extended moments of impassioned soloing by Larsen, and in the enchanting “Dream Girl.” Here and elsewhere, her clear enunciation of Sandburg's words proves to be one of the most appealing things about the project. Mixing things up, Belisle-Chi works a few carefully placed instrumental moments into the set-list, the solo acoustic guitar reverie “Chicago” a case in point. It's rather early to be nominating releases as potential candidates for a year-end list, but I Sang to You and the Moon already impresses as an exceptional release whose title one might well see show up when that list makes its annual appearance come December.

It's also fascinating to witness the change in tone that occurs when Tyrant Lizard's debut recording omits Crabtree's vocals and shifts the leader's role to Larsen, the composer of all but two of the eight pieces featured on the self-titled release. The non-Larsen pieces aren't by other members of the trio either, but rather beloved American classics, the folk song “Shenandoah” and Cole Porter's “Don't Fence Me In,” both of which receive affectionate renderings by the trio. As stated, Larsen's the leader, but it's a shared venture, the group having been co-founded in early 2014 by all three members upon discovering a shared affinity for improv, jazz, blues, and swing. With live effects added to the mix, Tyrant Lizard also sometimes ventures into experimental territory, too, as shown on a few of the more soundscaping-styled cuts on the thirty-seven-minute album (during “Predator Ooze” and “Gargoyles,” to cite two instances).

It's interesting to monitor the way the roles shift within the trio. In “Predator Ooze,” for example, the bassist and trumpet play unison lines, freeing up Belisle-Chi in the process, and then revisit the approach during the blues-drenched “Gargoyles,” with in this case all three voicing the dramatic theme when not playing independently. In the absence of a drummer, the bassist assumes a greater share of the responsibility for anchoring the trio's interplay, but Rothwell is more than up to the challenge. Her solid, reliable presence allows Larsen and Belisle-Chi to weave freely through the compositions' changes and improvise confidently knowing that a firm foundation is in place for whatever expressive turn they take. That's especially evident during a piece such as “Fingers,” where her grounding lines allow the others to float freely.

The trio brings a fresh twist to the oft-covered “Shenandoah” by tentatively circling around its melodies during the opening moments, teasing out the tune with tiny phrases before giving delicate voice to its themes. Belisle-Chi contributes a lovely, rather Frisell-esque rendering of those time-honoured melodies, after which Larsen adds his own version. On the lighter side is the trio's affectionate rendering of Porter's “Don't Fence Me In,” which concludes the release on a sunny note.

As solid as such pieces are, it's the opening track, “Stegosaurus,” that's the standout. The trio executes this gorgeous, rather hymnal ballad at a ravishingly slow tempo, a wise decision in that it grants its stirring melodies ample opportunity to penetrate deeply into the listener. With the guitarist and bassist having first established a delicate, spacious foundation, Larsen's trumpet enters to give voice to the piece's poignant folk themes and gradually guide them upwards with a heart-stopping performance that grows increasingly dramatic as it advances. It's a beautiful performance but hardly the only one deserving of mention on this fine debut.

January 2017