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Published: 2003/05/28
by Mike Greenhaus

Idle Hands – Devil’s Workshop Big Band

Perhaps journalists should start describing jambands as anthropologists.
After all, the jamband genre has helped rediscover several styles once
disregarded by the mainstream media: bluegrass, funk, fusion, and swing.
With their debut disc, Idle Hands, the Devil’s Workshop Big Band has
unearthed another buried layer of pop music: big band. A seventeen-piece
ensemble, Devil’s Workshop includes all the ingredients that comprised a big
band in the 1930s and ’40s: trumpets, trombones, saxophones, and a
solid-rhythm section. Yet, Devil’s Workshop doesn’t swing; instead, as Trey
Anastasio would say, they surrender to the air.
A collection of nine diverse jazz cuts, Devil’s Workshop add a refreshing,
modern twist to both big-band music and free jazz. Opening with an eleven
minute run through horn charts and airy sounds, "[free]" symbolizes the
album: a reinterpretation of big band music in an age where jazz often means
avant-garde and a funk-fusion. While much big band music has been regulated
to bar mitzvahs and wedding receptions, Devil’s Workshop uses its
seven-piece lineup to expand its sound, instead of simply making the dance
floor swing.
Opening with a slow piano-waltz, "Spanish Sanford" soon erupts into a mix of
horns and jazz guitar, boogie-woogie piano and a mean rhythm section holding
the track together. "The New Guy" peaks with a guitar solo reminiscent of
George Benson, or at times Mr. Anastasio himself, with its jazz-rock riffs.
"Mushroom Tattoos" and "Oh Snap" both clock in at over twelve minutes,
lengthy jazz excursions that recall the Sun Ra Arkestra, as well as more jam
oriented fusion. Both breathe, full of subtle sounds and horn-heavy notes.
"Mushroom Tattoos" uses the structure of a jazz standard as its skeleton,
but fleshes out its skin with Spanish sounding guitars, funk keyboards, and
a chorus that soul warriors WAR would be proud of.
Adding another modern twist to Idle Hands is a cover of Radiohead’s
space-pop suite "Morning Bell." With its expanded lineup and instrumental
reworking, Devil’s Workshop transform the song into a free jazz explosion,
with screeching guitar solos and mellower moments that would nicely
underscore a noir movie.
Yet, despite its modern edge, the most traditional part of Idle Hands
is its structure. Though funky at times, this is not groove music. Instead,
its big band standards open up for an audience raised after rock and bebop
broke. It’s fun and exciting, yet grounded in something older, and until
now, a bit buried in music history.

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