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That New CD Smell 2: Semi-Acoustic Boogaloo

We've just torn the wrapper off Tiny Resistors, Todd Sickafoose’s new Crypto drop that will hit all Capitalist Aural-Stimuli Dispensing Centers on JUNE 10TH.

cover art by Grady McFerrin & Gareth Jiffeau

Todd is familiar to most alt-music hounds in his role as righteous babe Ani DiFranco's house bassist for eight touring months out of the year—indeed, no less than The New Yorker called him “Ani DiFranco’s secret weapon.” (Go here for a short clip of them performing "Coming Up" from Imperfectly at Ann Arbor in 2006.) Mr. Sick is a versatile chap whose two previous solo records as a leader show his interest in obliterating the musical boundaries between jazz, chamber music, punk, folk, indie rock, and experimental electronic improvisation—or, more to the point, creating new ways of joining and bridging such disparate musical styles. It reminds me of a line from the LA Weekly’s fireplug music critic Greg Burk: “There are no styles any more, only music.”

A Frisco native, Sickafoose learned instruments as he got big enough to play them, arriving at the double bass at 12 (and not sure where to go from there). Piano, drums, and clarinet were early obsessions. But he also studied the Balinese gamelan, wrote string music, made 4-track recordings, and read Harry Partch as a kid. Things got most interesting when they got most mixed up.

Todd Sickafoose

In 1993, Sickafoose moved to L.A. and spent six years studying bass with Charlie Haden and composition with, among others, Wadada Leo Smith and the late Mel Powell. His debut record, Dogs Outside (Evander, 2000) was recorded in a marathon 10 hour session the day before he moved back to the Bay Area. It included an intriguing mix of forward-thinking musicians from both coasts: trombonist Alan Ferber, saxophonist Peter Epstein, guitarist Justin Morell and drummer Mark Ferber. The Los Angeles Times dubbed it "one of the best new discs this year."

Jenny Scheinman, Todd Sickafoose, Nels Cline
[Photo by Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times]

In San Francisco, Sickafoose joined up with the Scott Amendola Band and the Jenny Scheinman Quartet. (His propulsive, elastic playing can be heard on Amendola’s eponymous 1999 debut and 2003's Cry, as well as Scheinman's 2000 Live at Yoshi’s.) By the time Sickafoose moved to New York in 2004, he had already spent years knee-deep in San Francisco's noisy jazz sphere, the burgeoning West Coast singer-songwriter scene, and buried in heady classical scores at CalArts. It was all getting used, all the time.

Over the past several years, Todd performed, recorded, and toured with gender-bending singer-songwriter Noe Venable, space-prog jazzmeisters Crater (featuring laptopper jhno and Crypto house axist Nels Cline), pianist James Carney, guitarist Will Bernard, singer-songwriter Etienne de Rocher, New York guitarist Adam Levy, roots slide-guitarist/banjoist Tony Furtado, bluegrass singer-songwriter Laurie Lewis, fiddle maniac Darol Anger, ex-Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Bobby Previte, singer Carla Bozulich and pianist Myra Melford.

Todd Sickafoose with Blood Orange, from left: John Ellis, Ches Smith and Adam Levy (half-obscured)
[Photo by Richard Termine for The New York Times]

By 2006, Todd had a lot of collaborators to pick from for his second venture as a leader, the collaborative jambandisms of Blood Orange, which featured Ferber and Morell plus tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel, drummer Ches Smith and guest spots from Nels Cline, Adam Benjamin and Steve Moore. T-Sick himself describes Blood Orange as “indie-jazz-rock music played (it’s been said) with commitment, humor, and free-jazz spirit. We’ve been called ‘headphone jazz.’ Sometimes the band, when it’s good, sounds like a remix of itself. We play melodies you can sing.” All Music's Scott Yanow agreed: “Blood Orange never becomes background music, safe, or predictable. The stimulating results, which are both tight and loose (this is a quintet in which each musician listens closely to each other even during the freer sections), will keep listeners guessing.”

And now, we have Tiny Resistors, what could be described as "an alt-jazz record with an alt-folk sensibility." Throughout its 68 minutes of music, the record evokes rich, abstact imagery: the mysterious flora of a future epoch, the revelation of a secret message scribbled in invisible ink, an exodus of buzzing bees, and the silent sadness of an underwater piano, drowned in the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. It is these visions, and others, that inspire the 11 original compositions.

The record's robust arrangements feature an oversized band – two drummers, two guitarists, the bassist's battery of keyboard instruments, and violin, hitched to a 3 or sometimes 4-piece horn section. The bulk of the musicians are from Sickafoose's working New York band (Adam Levy, Mike Gamble, Shane Endsley, Ben Wendel, Alan Ferber, Skerik, Simon Lott and Allison Miller). Adding their magic are two guests: the inventive violinist and singer-songwriter Andrew Bird and Ms. Ani DiFranco herself.

The result is a mini-orchestra which gives weight and depth to Sickafoose's writing. Singing melodies slowly wind their way through the musicians, taking patient turns with each section. Other instruments form small polyrhythmic motors and churn along, developing at their own pace. There is a focused intensity but also a feeling that things might suddenly shift gears, as if the band was lighter on its feet than the listener realized.

Everywhere is Sickafoose's fluid bass playing (which is such a propelling force that the bassist is known for his work in drummer-less bands). If Sickafoose learned anything from his years studying with mentor Charlie Haden, it was how to create a band from the bottom up. The opening notes of "Future Flora" signal the paradigm shift. A three-note bass figure sets the overture in motion, giving legs to an inquisitive, unfolding melody in the guitars. The figure pivots down to the dominant, momentarily joined by the drums, then pivots back again. The opening melody recedes and as the bass figure holds steady, a new meter emerges above. The cinema of it is clear: it is as if the picture frame is opening to reveal a wider view.

Throughout Tiny Resistors, the band shines. "Invisible Ink, Revealed" begins with hand claps, followed by woozy brass lines from Shane Endsley's trumpet and Ben Wendel's tenor sax that intertwine on counterpoint like a DNA strand, eventually building to a wild Ornette-like climax. “Pianos of the 9th Ward” is of a spirtual whole with pianist David Witham’s “N.O. Rising” and soars thanks to an otherworldy solo by Alan Ferber. Shane Endsley's trumpet shines through "Everyone Is Going”'s slow burbling frontal attack of brass oomph. Ferber's trombone sputters alongside Skerik's baritone sax as they take the lowdown grinding rhythm of "Paper Trombones" and send it into the realm of Beatles-esque whimsy. Halfway through "Whistle", the band hands the wheel to Adam Levy, whose acoustic guitar provides the perfect, quiet rhapsody. Mike Gamble's guitar ostinato opens "Bye Bye Bees", the album's centerpiece, in a mood reminiscent of Radiohead's Kid A, making tiny shifts between major and minor and creating a trick pulse. Andrew Bird leaps in and improvises a staccato melody, doubling his pizzicato violin with whistling. (The song references "Colony Collapse Disorder," a technical term for the disappearance of bees). When Allison Miller and Simon Lott enter on drums, percussion and handclaps, the real pulse is illuminated. Later, Ani DiFranco's eerie vocals (distorted through a telephone mic) spill in like a warning: "Where? Wheeeeere am I? Wheeeeere?" This ain't your daddy's jazz, that's for sure.


Now in his fourth year of a steady touring and recording collaboration with DiFranco, it is clear that Sickafoose's multi-faceted talents have found another perfect match. Most evident throughout Tiny Resistors is Sickafoose's overarching vision as a composer, bandleader and producer (he also mixed the tracks in his Brooklyn studio). Using all of his skills at once, Sickafoose has created an album of grand melodies, layered rhythms, and shifting textures, and the results have never been more compelling.

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