The New Cool: Bad News Botanists provide a modern jazz response to modern times
While the opportunities for live music have been locked down for eight months and counting, a number of fantastic new releases have done the heavy lifting of keeping up the spirits of music fans. Seattle's Bad News Botanists have just released a new album, offering modern jazz therapy for disheartening times.
With their new album Indignation, Bad News Botanists express the frustration we've all been feeling this year. Moreover, they find ways to resolve frustration into triumph. Indignation offers warm sunshine breaking through seemingly impenetrable clouds.
Providing the lead musical voice, band leader Frank Vitolo's saxophone combines with Colin Pulkrabek's trombone in continuing a horn sound passed down from the Jazz Crusaders to Kamasi Washington. Bad News Botanists really find their strenth in strong compositions, sharp ensemble arrangements, and strong solo contributions from a dexterous lineup.
The title song is also the first single from Indignation, and the longest track as well. A surprising intro of beautiful acoustic piano sets the musical table, with Rob Homan adding synthesizer to a repeating phrase. Drummer Chris Patin establishes a steady mid-tempo groove to a melancholy horn theme, arriving at a flurry of powerful electric keyboards.
The bridge brings brightness and hope, and introduces our first solo from Vitolo's searching tenor. We get a rocking distorted guitar solo from Andy Short, returning to a solemn acoustic piano finish. It's a fine showcase for the players, and spells out the album's message of resilience.
Echoes of the dark rock melodies of 90s Seattle are intentional. Vitolo tells me, "For many tunes on the album, I was hearing 90s grunge singers while formulating the sound and phrasing of the melody. I thought creating grunge sounding melodies put a piece of Seattle in the music."
The band's tribute to 90s sax-rock group Morphine is an obvious connection to that time. "Morphine (a tribute to Mark Sandman)" was inspired by the voice of that band's late lead singer. It's a pulsing, synthesizer-driven number sprinkled with horn flourishes and featuring hard rock energy.
Singer Aura Payne, a friend of Vitolo's from soul revival band The Highsteppers, contributes the lone vocal on the new release. It's mostly wordless, aside from the title of "Mango Sticky Rice," a tasty ballad with Payne acting more as a guest instrument than in a traditional singer's role. Guitarist Short provides a chord-heavy solo and weaves around Payne's voice in a satisfying finish.
Indignation's funkiest moments focus in on happier sounds. "Get It Together" is a jubilant New Orleans bouncer spotlighting Chris Patin's pocket drumming to great effect. Short's intense rhythm guitar anchors the funky horn hooks.
The bounce of "Duck a la Funk" includes the album's most memorable horn riff, a twisty and catchy melody with both horns coiling around each other. At a compact 2:30 running time, the song makes an impact.
Vitolo explained that the music for Indignation has long been in the works, so the "Air Quality Index 181" (parts 1 and 2) pieces were written for the smoky Northwest skies of 2018, not this year. Both parts properly express feelings of depression and frustration that air polution brings, but also offer resilience. I think Vitolo's finest moments on saxophone come in his doubled solo on "Part 1."
Written while touring through Portland, "Rip City" is a fine example of Bad News Botanists' talent for sweet pop melody wrapped in jazz sophistication. It's a cool glass of lemonde on a hot day. The minor chords easily resolve to major in Indignation's most tuneful piece.
Pulkrabek's sorrowful trombone rises to a joyful apogee, followed by a suave but playful bass solo from Marina Christopher. The song's melody is so striking, you almost expect lyrics, but they never come. That's a heartfelt compliment.
Closing the album is a down-tempo reworking of sax great Kenny Garrett's "Happy People." The original's upbeat vibe can feel sappy, but Bad News Botanists find a better way. They embrace the two sides of the composition, settling into a reflective groove before transitioning to the jubilant melody of the chorus. Moving through quick-witted solos for bass, trombone, keys and drums, we experience repeated moments of euphoria. It's a surprisingly effective choice for the album.
Bad News Botanists offer up the brief "An Optional Ending" to close out the proceedings. A thickly funky rhythm section ruminates on a groove, and horns unlock a second half of joyfully repeated phrase as the curtain closes on Indignation.
After listening through, the album's message seems clear. I asked Vitolo if he intended a "rising-from-melancholy" vibe through the album, his response: "Nailed it." For a moment in time that we surely could use some hope for the future, Bad News Botanists provide a bright light at the end of the tunnel.
The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.