To me there is something to be said for an artist that draws inspiration from multiple wells. A record that presents itself in distinct areas of style while maintaining a sense of balance can be the ultimate accomplishment for recording artists. Donny Frauenhofer Trio’s newest release "Uppin' the Ante" succeeds far more than it falls short in this aspect.
The record’s songs can be seen as a number of groups, or themes. The group continues the time-tested jazz approach of reinventing older pop songs in jazz style. We’ll call these “The Covers”. A few of the record’s tracks present themselves in a more traditional mellow piano-led jazz sound. We can refer to these ones as “The Jazz”. Finally, the largest group of tracks on the record come to the listener in various styles that I found to be more unique and imaginative. I almost felt as if these tracks were the true DFT style manifesting. Thus, we will call this group of tracks “The Style”.
The record’s two cover tunes could be seen as an allegory for the space between all of the record’s various sounds. On one hand, you have a cocaine disco paced rendition of Pink Floyd’s commercial funk track “Another Brick in The Wall”. On the other end of the spectrum is a poppy funk rendition of Fallout Boy’s “Sugar We’re Going Down”. On paper these tracks are two different sounds and generations, but these are the kind of sentiments that thrive in a jazz environment. As for the songs themselves, “The Covers” were probably my least favorite aspects of this record. I can recognize the creative interpretations of these tracks, and they undoubtedly go over well in a live setting. Despite this I can’t shake the feeling that record would have been better served with two more DFT originals, or without these covers in general. “Sugar We’re Going Down” works well enough on a sensory level, but I found it to interrupt the aesthetic vibe of the original music found on the record. The recording is very well constructed and tasteful but may have made more sense as a single. “Another Brick in The Wall” feels similar on all fronts, but personally I found it to be significantly less interesting. I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the source material, although the DFT version has tremendous energy. I felt as if this one was going to bust into “Weekapaugh Groove” at any moment, and I’m sure that sentiment colors my thoughts on the cover in question. All in all, the track is definitely still good enough for an official, albeit different release.
“The Jazz” makes up a similarly small portion of the record. Despite making up only 7 or 8 minutes of the runtime, both of these tracks remain memorable and thematically in line with the rest of the record.
“A Spirit” provides light fingered jazz melodies over flurries of cymbal and bent hip hop adjacent drumming. Existing in a pretty clean sounding backdrop, the song resonates with me the same way some 70s fusion groups do. Imagine if Pat Metheny wanted to write a piano tune after binge listening to J Dilla beat tapes, and you’ll get a semblance of this song.
On the other end of “The Jazz” spectrum exists the blistering 3 minutes of audio titled “Sky Equals Falling”. In essence, it’s an impressive up-tempo tune in the Bop style. Solid solos throughout feature a nice mix of melody and odd phrasing. Personally, I thought that the decision to include a composition in a more classic style worked extremely well in this case, and I’d count “Sky Equals Falling” among my favorites from the lot.
photo by Ellen Pieroni
On to “The Style”. Although this group is eclectic in sound and scope, the bag is relatively unmixed in terms of overall quality. Nothing falls too far short, and in general things actually exceed what you would expect from a debut record. The record's leading track “Daylight” is a gritty mid-tempo jazz funk exploration with an improv section that goes through a range of spaces. The lead instrument goes on an eclectic run which included cameos from a dreamy “Streets of Rage” style synth to some pseudo-Mesozoic brass sounding synths, to ultra-bent acoustic piano melodies, only to transition back to the video game synth with an added array of effects. The passage provides for a colorful and interesting listen. The song also features a prominent talk box effect, and to be honest I wasn’t a huge fan of it at first. As repeated listens piled up, I became fonder of this aspect. Like a lot of things in life, you might have to try it more than once to acquire the taste.
"On Your Street" is a light and breezy funk with some elements of an audio collage. Some samples of typical city street noises set a cool vibe that brings visions of seeing bands play at smaller street side bars and venues. The night, the people, and the music all blend into a unique feeling. Similarly, to the opening track, this one features an array of sounds coming from the keys. A nice Rhodes is the main character for most of the track, but the video game synth does make a solo appearance. Some light EDM style synth sounds also make a small presence to add just a touch more detail. The latter half of the track features some smart interplay between bass and keys, as well as a number of tastefully dense bass runs.
“Stick To the Shadows” is a frantically up-tempo number with elements of Latin jazz and drum & bass music. The entire record’s drums are solid, but this track in particular stands out to me as the most impressive. The drummer artfully uses ghost noting to comp the melody throughout, and seemingly glides through spooky rhythm changes with ease. The track also features a nice call and response section between the bass and keys. Things quiet down a bit for a bridge with a bit of a mothership landing, before sliding into a ripping bass solo. Heed my advice friends. At the very least, give “Stick to the Shadows” a listen.
"Queen" takes a more sensitive approach tonally, with composed melodies giving way to energetic solos. The video game synth tone sticks out in a slightly less flattering light in my opinion, but the general progression of the track is enough to provide life for the piece. The song employs a good mix of sweet harmony and slightly dissonant ideas and manages to navigate between the two places in a way that makes sense.
The album's last original tune is a dissonant, yet easily digestible fusion number called "Sketchy Glue". Dancing between a few motifs of various dynamics, the trio comfortably places a parlay bet on precise jazz fusion and video game sugar rush silliness. "Daylight Reprise" completes the thematic elements of the record with a nature sample laden melodica vignette.
"Uppin' the Antea" presents DFT as a Western NY jazz group with a very bright future. Any lovers of jazz should give this one a listen, as well as all NY music fans. We're excited to see what kind of recordings the group releases in the future! Stay Evil and enjoy some remarks from Donny below.
DF: The group formed for a jazz festival at a venue in Buffalo called Nietzsches. I was always interested in doing a trio, but like many groups it started as a group that played more traditional jazz … standards, swing tunes. I think we had 1 original song we played that I wrote in college called “Can’t Even the Odd” … otherwise we did a lot of jazz standards, but I’d say the artists we did the most were Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Charlie Parker. The trio went through personnel changes but eventually settled on the current lineup, which includes Colin Brydalski on fretless bass and Isaiah Griffin on drums, but there are 2 other guys that sub on bass and drums that I also consider part of the band, their names are James Benders on bass and Joe Goretti on drums. James Benders actually has a writing credit though he’s a sub, the opening track “Daylight” was partially written during an improvisation moment at a local Wednesday night residency we had.
EB: What was the album recording process like? When did you start this record? Was it done completely in-house, or did you utilize any commercial studios?
DF: The music we recorded had mostly been played and tested live so we knew it well going in. We recorded all but 3 songs in one day on July 5, recorded the other 2 July 8, and the other tune (Daylight Reprise) I recorded solo at some point in late august. I recorded it myself at my own house in basically a bedroom I use as a rehearsal/creative space.
EB: How does the presentation of these tracks differ in a live setting? Are they pretty much the same? Expanded upon live?
DF: They’re the same in terms of having the same form generally, but we embrace improvisation and know many of these tunes so well at this point that even playing the composed parts can have a different flavor depending on the night. And depending on the tune we have some that feature solos with strict parameters while there’s others that are much more open for use to lead to different places. Daylight is an example of one that often can be expanded much more than the album, while a tune like A Spirit or Sketchy Glue has a stricter form to follow for improvisation.
EB: What was your vision for this album? Do you think you reached your vision? What is this album in your words?
DF: My vision for this album started as just needing to pull the bandaid off and get a debut album out so I could more or less “clean the slate” - I had amassed a lot of original music that grew from playing out live at bars and clubs and I wanted to capture that vibe as much as I could so I could move forward and plan out the next albums more closely. Once we recorded, I developed a concept of just trying to put out an album that relates my experience of being a working musician over the past couple years. It starts and ends with “Daylight” as if the entire album takes place over night in the gigging hours - hence the lyrics “I sleep in the daylight”. It’s supposed to simulate that experience, so hence “on Your street” having sirens and all this bar chatter overdubbed, it’s supposed to give you the vibe that you’re outside the bar walking up to it, and when the song starts, you’re inside. The album concludes with daylight reprise and birds chirping because that would be the morning, the early hours I get home after gigging and maybe hanging after - you get home … the suns coming up … birds are chirping … but you have a song you played earlier stuck in your head. And I’d often play melodica outside in early mornings when I wasn’t ready for bed yet too. So, all of that and the album is kind of a summation of the journey of the last couple years I’ve been on - being a working musician and all that.