Lonely House (Covers)
By PAUL ZOLLO
Had Coltrane never recorded “My Favorite Things,” it’s quite possible that his genius might have gone unheard by millions of his fans who were attracted by the famous melody. One hopes this new album by the remarkable trio Cargo Cult (Tomas Ulrich on cello with Rolf Sturm on guitar & banjo and Michael Bisio on bass) has the same effect, luring listeners in with famous melodies so that they then become exposed to the expansive improvisational genius of these three amazing musicians.
Lonely House, named for the Kurt Weill-Langston Hughes song, goes a long way in proving that which we have long known, which is that Tomas Ulrich is the Miles Davis of the cello. Like Miles, Tomas is fluent in every musical language, and in each his warm tone and distinctive depth of expression lets you know it’s him and nobody else playing. Ulrich’s voice on the cello is one of the most poignant and distinctive sounds in modern music – he can sing with the warm tonality of a human voice, lavishing much grace onto glorious melodies, but also veers off into places voices can never reach. Like Miles he understands the meaning and value of silence, the space between the notes. His playing is expansive and yet very personal – always on that razor’s edge of joy/sorrow, and whether playing a melody by Donizetti, Cole Porter or Neil Young (all of whom are represented here), the Ulrich spark – the great oceans of sorrow connected to limitless elation – is there. His playing reflects always the full gamut of human experience, from darkly mournful to pure exultation, and always soulful, like a man singing purely from the heart.
From the opening cut here – “Una Furtiva Lagrima” by Donizetti — we are alerted to something very special. Set against the ostinato bass line of the monumental Bisio and with eloquent coloring by the exceptionally gifted Sturm, Tomas takes the beautiful melody and soars with it. Long revered for his own beautiful Mingus-meets-Zappa compositions and his improvisational genius on cello – an instrument on which musicians rarely improvise, and never with the confidence and complexity he easily summons – here on this album of covers, he shows his respect for the purity of melody by bringing his full-bodied tone to the beauty of these great tunes. He brings you into the realm, sings a beautiful and/or visceral melody through his instrument, and then proceeds – not unlike Miles – to deconstruct that melody and take it to new and unimagined places. This might be the best Ulrich group effort yet to introduce new listeners to the majesty of his music, and he shows that the tonal range of the cello, in his hands anyway, make it perhaps the most expressive instrument in existence – with the high frequency clarity of a violin or soprano sax, the mid-frequency agility of an alto sax or guitar, and the deep amber colors of bassoon and bass.
The song choice is unusual and fun – a standard like Weill’s “September Song” might be expected (though they take it to unexpected places) but who would expect Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” from a jazz group? Though simple and diatonic, Ulrich bends the notes of the tune like a drunken sailor trying to walk home after a whole night of drinking, and Bisio plays the part of the friend keeping his pal from falling face-down with his steady and comforting bass line. Sturm’s playing throughout is joyful – with tastes of country and folk mixed in with jazz voicings and eloquently clean solo lines. On “September Song,” as Tomas sings the famous and beautiful melody, underscored lovingly by Bisio’s bowed bass, Sturm shines brilliantly in his accompaniment, which is eloquently quirky and great, and then solos with an inspired blend of Django, Chet Atkins, and more.
When Cargo Cult takes on the blues, as they do here with Robert Johnson’s classic “Come On In My Kitchen,” what we get is miraculous – suddenly we’re in the Mississippi Delta, in a great wedding of acoustic textures and blues and soul. This isn’t an elitist jazz journey to the blues. This is authentic, as Sturm brings the metallic taste of banjo into the mix. When they take on the sophisticated changes of Stevie Wonder’s “’Cause We Ended As Lovers,” they bring out the soulful splendor of its great melody, and then open up to one of Tomas’ most exquisite solos.
The entire album, as produced by Robert Rusch, was recorded live – and preserves and celebrates the tonal purity of these three musicians so intimately that you can hear one exhale on a furious lead line, or the occasional sounds of fingers sliding on strings. Rusch wisely didn’t tamper with the intimate immediacy of Cargo Cult’s greatness – the live meeting of three musicians inspiring each other. The guitar and bass are panned to opposite stereo sides, while Ulrich remains in the middle, linked by spirit, rhythm and harmony with his band mates.
Eden Ahbez’s delightful “Nature Boy” shows off Ulrich’s amazing versatility and range of emotion – from gently stating the elegiac tune to a solo which is both brash and delicate, skating through the changes with marvelous dynamism and poignancy.
A jaunty swing melody, without the need for drums, on Monk’s “Let’s Cool One” shows that Ulrich can bring Grappelli-like verve to the cello – while Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” has him burning like Hendrix on cello, somehow producing currents of distortion and overdrive without the use of any electronics.
If you are yearning for meaningful music, yearn no more. This is the ideal Cargo Cult album with which to start. This isn’t background music or cocktail time jazz. This is something transcendent. This is now, yet this is timeless. This is Cargo Cult, and should not be missed. – Paul Zollo