It's not impossible to lead a jazz band from behind a drum kit — just ask Ark Blakey — but it does take a certain kind of selflessness to drive the beat while giving a platform to your instrumentalists. Drummer Kaleb Kirby is the leader and chief composer for the new jazz sextet Animal Children, and while he's done time with swing-oriented jazz as part of Tommy Halloran's Guerrilla Swing, he brings a certain expansiveness to his own compositions. Kirby keeps a firm grip on the sway of these songs, but local jazz-scene veteran Adam Maness is a key architect here — not just as an elder statesman in a troupe of relatively young guns, but as the hands behind the Fender Rhodes electric piano. That instrument's plinky tone and muddy depths immediately call to mind everything from the proto-smooth-jazz of Bob James to the fusion experiments of Return to Forever to the barbed mellow of Steely Dan. And Maness references those traditions while helping establish the band's place in the modern jazz tradition — albeit with a few detours. The stop/start dissonance and low-end distortion of "Stay Golden" show the group's comfort with rock dynamics, and "oh-we-ah" starts the album with the kind of brassy pep that would be hard to sustain over a whole program. But as the self-titled album progresses, Animal Children is content to let the songs breathe, playing catchy and kinetic choruses as a unit before allowing its players to step forward individually.
Kirby takes few true drum solos on this album (though his intro to the set-closing "Plus | Minus" shows a feather-touch); instead, he is content to direct traffic with well-placed fills and tempo shifts. These amorphous songs favor that kind of looseness, though the band is never in danger of losing the plot. If these tracks aren't the most fleshed-out compositions, they still leave fertile ground for these able and unflashy soloists. Fellow Guerrilla Swing member Kristian Baarsvik starts the album on alto sax but hits more peaks and valleys when he switches to tenor, as he does on the bolero-like "Damage Report." The nine-minute "Advantages" allows Animal Children to stretch its limbs on this record, owing in part to both the track's length and its open, airy structure. Guitarist Mason Baran doles out familiar jazz licks at first and switches to more outré patterns as the song progresses. That ends up being a pretty good model for Animal Children on its debut recording: familiar at first, but untethered to tradition as the song moves on.
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