SHUT UP AND LISTEN

Fans of instrumental music know a few things: 1) Good – really good – instrumental music, is difficult to find. 2) Even the best musicians can write crappy instrumentals. 3) Many of those instrumentalists allow their egos to take hold and they end up blowing all their writing and playing chops in the first minute-and-a-half of the first tune.

The ones who do it well take time and deeply consider what they’re composing and how it all fits together. On the Northeast Florida scene, there are several instrumental groups, a few of which are super-tight, compositionally sound and really interesting to listen to. The rest fall into either the “meandering, no direction” or the “look how fast I can play” camps. The worst of them (no names mentioned here) fall into both.

We can be thankful that instrumental sextet Tambor rises above all that sophomoric junk; they’re set to release one hell of an album come November. The lineup – Ivan Skenes (guitar), Chris Jackson (guitar, vibes), Eric Riehm (sax, Rhodes), Evan Peterson (bass, percussion), Sean Hendrix (vibes, percussion) and Josh Wessolowski (drums) – is stellar, some of the best players in the area. It should be noted that I occasionally play in bands with four members of Tambor. This is to say that I hold them to a high standard, having become very familiar with what they are capable of, both as musicians and composers. So there will be no favoritism here. In fact, if this album sucked, I’d be more than happy to tell you about it, because they’d deserve it.

But it doesn’t. Yodel is truly a standout among local releases, and could easily hold its own on the national scene. Here are five reasons to buy this sucker.

This band has a way of composing pieces of music that, though highly complex at times, is very listenable. Unlike their influence Steve Reich, who employs repeated patterns that stretch out over many minutes (sometimes nearly a half-hour) and change almost indiscernibly over that time, Tambor moves things along. Reich is brilliant, but it takes patience to imbibe his music. Yes, there are Reichian, even Philip Glass-like progressions here, but they morph quickly and over recognizable fusionesque grooves. The result is a collection of digestible chunks of moody, angular, brainy pieces for people willing to actually listen to the music.

Track 1, “Cauliflower,” sets the perfect tone for the album, with a typical Tambor picked repeated guitar line in 6/8. Then another in 5. Then comes the break juxtaposing the 6 pattern against a 7/8 section. The vibes and sax downplay the prog-rock feel, giving the song a very early Tortoise lilt. Make no mistake, this is not easy to execute. But it’s very easy to listen to, even if you don’t understand the math of it all.

Track 3, “Reich,” ironically the most Tortoise-y of the bunch, is bouncy and forward-moving. Hills and valleys of sound and mood, here, with lots to think about. Layers, funky breaks, time changes and then … lots of space. It’s what Tambor does well, placing seemingly cluttered-yet-organized ideas against big cymbal washes and even silence. It’s the opposite of bombast, but impactful nonetheless.

The instrumentation. Not just the instruments, but how they’re used. The approach, again, is compositional, and little is left to chance. There is intent here, and an ear for structure. Very little noodling, as it were. Some of the pieces work better than others, and the band can slip into sloppy on rare occasions. But on the whole, this is a super-tight ensemble that uses their instruments as a way to convey a fully developed musical idea. Pick one to listen to all the way through – the vibes maybe, or bass line. Stay with it to the end, allowing the other instruments to fall back. The journey will open your ears. Then do it again. Follow one guitar or drums, and you’ll gain a better understanding why this music works. It’s not over-the-top shredding or even narcissistic hoopla. It’s smart in the best way.
And it moves.

Track 9, “Succulent.” Holy crap. Saved it for the end, and it’s the best one on the record. Funky, angular, melodic, layered, challenging and – dare it be said – danceable. Everything great about Tambor happens in this song. Everyone shines, as both ensemble players and soloists. Produced and mixed by Jackson in his home studio, the sound on this record is big but not overbearing. Even when everyone is playing together, when their lines are complex and overlapping, there seems to be space, room for everything. And everyone.

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