Imagine being at the bow of a 30-foot whaleboat with one goal: heaving a harpoon into the beast and taking command of its last moments. One good slap of that tail and your hunting cohort would be on its way to Davy Jones’ locker. Now imagine sitting in front of Albert Ayler’s quartet – revered for the clout of its holy shriek and often deemed one of jazz’s most fiercely joyous outfits. One proper pique of frenzy on, say, “Universal Indians” could be a heart-stopper, sending you and your nightclub cohort to St Peter’s golden gates. Connecting the dots between these two hypothetical experiences probably isn’t on the minds of many musicians, but as century-old sea shanties entwine with raucous free jazz nuggets of the ‘60s on the debut by this intriguing New York outfit, you realize Blowhard boss Jeff Lederer has likely spent a chunk of time mulling over such scenarios.
A fan of the way collective voices can align towards a common goal (he’s previously reworked the trance-like reveries of Shaker “vision” tunes), saxophonist Lederer is also smitten with the work songs of seafarers. Classics like “Haul On the Bowline” and “Shallow Brown” – originated while sailors went about their rigorous daily duties – set up a rhythm and milk a groove; call ‘em the field hollers of the ocean. Known for his scholarship in all things Ayler (2012’s Sunwatcher is stop one when acquainting yourself with his lyrical roar) Lederer built the Blowhards to marry two seemingly disparate interests. As the brays and booms of each realm spill into each other during this 14-song program, the parallels continually reveal themselves.
The octet’s book is full of frolic. The sing-along nature of Ayler’s themes help buoy the red-zone wail that he and his trumpeting brother Donald often brought to their performances in the mid-60s. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if their emotionally rich mix is waxing melancholy or beaming with elation; regardless, the melodies are all earworms with repetitive designs that make them distant cousins of the shanties Lederer has revamped. When you hear the traditional “Santy Anno” sitting a couple of tracks away from Ayler’s “Heavenly Home,” the similarities are hard to miss. The Blowhards smear the particulars of each until the blend becomes unique. With its splashy rise and fall design, the traditional “Black Ball Line” could easily be mistaken for an Ayler original.
The group’s instrumentation lends itself towards full-throated howls, and the material is goosed by the squad’s verve. The reeds of Lederer and Petr Cancura, the brass of trombonist Brian Drye and cornetist Kirk Knuffke, the wheezing keybs of accordionist Art Bailey – over and over again they fuel the kind of shared shout that harks to the bluster of a ship-bound crew on its third month at sea. Crucial, too, is the pound-along percussion of oversized drums, chains, bells and “chum bucket” – a massive pail that usually holds fish remains to be dumped overboard in hopes of luring a more valuable catch. In concert, the Blowhards can sound like a parade band run amuck on the docks: all martial grooves, drunken swagger and blaring horns.
There are a couple of left turns included to widen the program’s scope. When vocalist Mary LaRose arrives to front the band on Ayler’s “Island Harvest,” she brings the original’s droll philosophy and Caribbean sashay to the fore. And Gary Lucas’ national steel guitar chimes in nicely as LaRose pines away during a gritty spin on the 1800s lament “Shenandoah.” With a signature YouTube promo that references Melville’s Moby-Dick texts about the “universal cannibalism” and “eternal war” of life below the sea, Lederer’s experiment could perhaps have placed its bets on nothing but swells and storms. That’s not the case. From his heartfelt soprano lines on “Dancing Flowers” to Knuffke’s plaintive opening of “Santy Anno,” there’s a reflective side to the action as well. (In 1970, after years of animated music-making, Ayler’s body was found floating off a Brooklyn pier not far from where several of the Blowhards reside.) Ultimately, this impressive date is defined by poignancy as much as it is by pandemonium.