Waxwing: A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists

A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists isn't Waxwing's debut outing as the trio previously issued the album Escondido Dreams on Drip Audio in 2007 under the Wilson/Lee/Bentley name. Eight years is a long time between albums, more so today than ever before, and so it doesn't seem unreasonable that cellist Peggy Lee, guitarist Tony Wilson, and saxophonist Jon Bentley might opt for a fresh start and a new beginning. The new name, incidentally, derives from a striking bird common to the Vancouver area called the Cedar Waxwing that's marked by mohawk-like head feathers and black-banded eyes.

Though Lee was the one who kickstarted the group's formation in 2006, Bentley adopted the role of prime mover for the new recording, and in fact the majority of its fourteen compositions are his. Dedicated to tenor saxophonist/pianist Ross Taggart, a mentor of Bentley's who died of cancer in 2013 at the age of forty-five, the release takes its title from something Taggart said during his final days at the hospital: when a friend asked if she could get him anything, he replied, “Yes actually, I would really like a bowl of sixty taxidermists.” Indicative of the closeness of the relationship, Bentley and Taggart played together in a number of contexts, and the latter even left Bentley his soprano sax, which is heard on the recording.

A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists is a thoroughly satisfying collection of original compositions and improvisations that confidently explores multiple moods and styles. Many pieces are short—two of them one-minute vignettes—while a few others are more extensively explored; in addition to the Taggart homage (“For Ross”), there's another honouring drummer Claude Ranger (“For Claude”) and even a cover of the traditional “Clementine.” From its outset the group was meant to be fully collaborative with no one of the three the leader. In that spirit, each moves seamlessly between lead and supporting roles on a recording that eschews histrionics and aggression for playing of a more peaceful character.

A strong opener, the title cut recalls the hard bop swing of the material John Zorn, George Lewis, and Bill Frisell laid down on 1988's News For Lulu (Kenny Dorham's “K. D.'s Motion” in particular), after which the tone shifts dramatically for the heartfelt memorial “For Ross,” composed by Wilson and featuring some beautifully rendered playing by the guitarist. Bentley and Lee contribute stirring performances of their own to this album highlight, whose delicacy and lyricism lingers long after it's over. The album-closing “Gone” likewise relates to Taggart's passing, with Bentley having written the piece immediately after receiving the news of his death.

A ponderous dirge suffused with wistfulness and nostalgia, “For Claude” is bolstered by a smoky solo from Bentley, whereas a rather different geographical and stylistic zone is evoked by the Eastern-flavoured setting “Dune” when ocarina whistles and bells are added to the trio's regular instrumentation. With Lee's and Wilson's textures evoking the soft sounds of a late summer's night, “Clementine” plays like a dreamlike moodscape until Bentley's voicing of the song's familiar melodies arrives. Changing things up, Bentley adds alto clarinet to his tenor playing on the also bop-like “Thicket,” and even the pieces that appear more explorative and improv-styled retain a strong directional feel (e.g., “Snow Blind”). Given the high level of craft on display throughout this collection of chamber jazz-styled interaction, it'd be surprising if another eight years passes before the follow-up appears.

September 2015