Improvising Collective Bright Dog Red Fuse It Up On Fiery “How’s By You? (Album Review)

Bright Dog Red (BDR) is an improvising collective from Albany, NY that fuses free improvisation, electronica, jazz, hip hop, psychedelia, noise, and whatever else strikes their fancy. This is their second release for Ropeadope, a label that specializes in these kinds of creative ensembles. The band was founded by drummer and composer Joe Pignato, a professor at the State University of New York, Oneonta and established through freewheeling jam sessions that he led, some tracing back to a decade ago.

BDR is a collective so there are some members who rotate in and out of the group. This recording features five contributors, slimmed down from its predecessor that has an additional MC, trumpet, and two guitarists. For this recording, we have five contributors, all core members – bandleader Joe Pignato (drums, concepts), MC Cully (rhymes, freestyling), Cody Davies (sounds, electronics), Anthony Berman (bass) and Mike LaBombard (saxophone). That lineup will give an indication of what they sound like, as rhymes and sounds merge with the conventional three instruments. The album was produced and recorded by Pignato near Albany. The album was captured live, over the course of three discrete sessions, each wholly improvised. From its earliest days, Bright Dog Red has recorded this way and the spontaneity is evident on each track.

Pignato comments on the early days of jamming, “ I was inspired by one of my teachers, Yusef Lateef, who held jam sessions with his students. I’d have students out to my cabin in the Catskills and we’d play for hours, all of it improvised. They had such singular voices, different references than I anticipated. I recorded all of it, often thinking it might become something. That “something” remained little more than thought until a decade later. Encouraged by recordings of those early sessions, Pignato decided to formulate a fixed incarnation of the group, reaching out to former students from the ensembles he directs at Oneonta.

Although their time in Pignato’s groups proved excellent training for BDR’s brand of improvisation, the group stands apart from the members’ previous endeavors. Bassist Berman explains It’s like spontaneous, collective meditation. We get into a trance state and ideas just flow. Cully notes, at its best, the music is an impossibly divided form of unity, with each participant as expressive as a soloist and supportive as a side-player. Saxophonist LaBombard echoes those sentiments, “with BDR, I can stretch, with the support of the others, melodically, harmonically, stylistically. It’s the group and the individual.” Cody Davies summed up, “You have to give in. There’s an interdependency to BDR. It feels more like we push each other to be vulnerable rather than jam or play tunes.”

This follows last year’s debut Means to the Ends which was hailed for its exploratory sounds and the melding of musical elements. Prior to their two full-length albums, the band recorded two EPs: 2017’s Bullet Proof Shoes and 2015’s Teasers. The band has also earned esteem among contemporary musicians representing a wide swath of genres. Live looping artist Adam Ahuja of Infinity Gritty has implored his followers to immerse themselves in BDR’s “self-reflective swing hop.” Internationally renowned DJ M A N I K, has heralded BDR’s “dope fusion improv” on his syndicated podcast Welcome to My Crate. Bass virtuoso and neuroscientist Tyreek Jackson, who often plays with the group, credited BDR with expanding his horizons, “Playing in this band, where you know that things can change at any time, has opened up my ear…I become a better listener after every BDR gig.”

The How’s by You? sessions produced over two hours of music. Pignato, pored through the recordings, marking transitions, editing breaks, and roughing out each of the tracks that appear on the album. Paul Geluso, a New York-based engineer and Pignato’s longtime collaborator, mixed the album, making additional edits to fine-tune each selection. The duo worked together in a similar fashion on 2018’s Means to the Ends, although this second album incorporates more studio craft than the first, a trend Pignato sees continuing on future projects: “We used the studio a bit more here. Got creative with the edits, though about things like isolation. With the first album, we really wanted the rawness of our live sets to permeate. On How’s by You? we thought, “what can we distill from that energy?” I’d like to see future albums mix and match the visceral nature of what we do live with the more controlled possibilities of the studio and post-production. In that way, How’s by You? is kind of a transition for us.”

The music here is free-flowing and immersive. There are 11 tracks, ranging in length from three minutes to nine minutes for well over an hour’s worth of music. Rather than comment on any track by titles like “A Bayou for You,” ”Cauldrons and Conundrums,” and “Hospital Food,” as just a few examples, certainly lend themselves to creative rhyming. Saxophonist LaBombard plays in a very avant-garde style, Pugnato and acoustic bassist Berman push each other, and the rhyming, noise and electronics just weave in and out. It’s complex enough that you may want to listen to it first conceptually and then concentrate on the rhymes and freestyle lyrics on the next listen.

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