Free Form Improvisational Collective Bright Dog Red Returns with Most Accessible Release Yet – ‘Under the Porch’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Under the Porch is the Albany, NY-based collective’s Bright Dog Red’s (BDR) fifth album for Ropeadope since 2018, and we have covered each annual release on these pages since 2019. Unlike 2021’s live recording, this one is born from excruciating studio details. There are a dozen tracks, recorded part by part, layer by layer, edit after edit during a period from late 2020 to late 2021. There’s a slight departure in sound and a major difference in production approaches and one new player, the renowned electric bassist Tim Lefebvre. The rest of the familiar names return, led by drummer and mastermind Joe Pignato with Eric Person on alto (also soprano and flute), Mike LaBombard (tenor saxophone), Tyreek Jackson (guitar, electric bass), Anthony Berman (acoustic bass), Cody Davies (electronics, sounds), and Matt Coonan (poetry, freestyling, voice).  Both saxophonists contribute effects as well.

Proving that improvisation can come in many forms – from live, in-the-moment communication as in 2021’s In Vivo to this labyrinth of production techniques, the sound in general is similar although there is more emphasis on the rhythm elements, especially the bass. That traces to PIgnato’s process, yet another example of how resourceful musicians became during this pandemic shutdown, bent on keeping the music flowing even though gathering together in a single space, as they had typically done, was out of the question. Past records had the band developing improvisational riffs and conversations where often the groove would eventually develop. This one puts the groove first and lets the players improvise around it. In one sense, this is the polar opposite of the last record, but the elements that have defined BDR –  free-from jazz, funk, rock, electronica, and hip-hop remain in place.

Pignato first recorded improvised drum tracks as points of departure for the other musicians to build around and with three bassists involved sent four tracks to each of them. So, while three bassists are listed in the credits, each one is only playing on those four tracks where they had returned to Pignato composed parts, loops, fragments, or a series of improvised ideas. Pignato then integrated these with his drum parts and then sent the tracks to the other musicians, based on who he felt best fit in with the direction of the music. When these contributions came back, sometimes they were retained while at other times buttressed with loops or layers to create even newer ideas. This round-robin approach caused the players to think and write differently. As one example the electronics mastermind Davies likened it to a cross between scoring a film and engineering a session.

Mastering engineer Bryan Brundige, who has worked on all of BDR’s Ropeadope releases adjusted based on the very different approaches of the three bassists in an effort to both retain the bass-centric nature of the sound and the album’s more refined sound of each layer added at a time. Keep in mind that the musicians were listening to rhythm tracks and not to other front liners or ensemble parts.

Let’s take them by bassist rather than an album by sequence. They kick off with the title track as Tyreek Jackson mans the electric bass. Over Pignato’s frenetic pattering, Coonan enters with his signature freestyling over a bed of ethereal keys and fuzzed-out bass, and various vocoder-like effects. The two saxophonists climb in, blowing a maelstrom over hair-raising electronica to take us out. “Trickle Down” has a steady beat, a chorus of voices, and the lead from the freestyler Coonan, with a repetitive bass riff that ushers in s a wave of electronic effects and LaBombard on tenor. Jackson uses pedals for effects and soon all the sounds are awash in this whooshing quality. “Pardon Me’ features Pignato’s muscular drum pattern and a funky array of electronics with the bass and tenor giving it a very heavy bottom, all of which dissipates except for the drums to allow Coonan to deliver his unbridled rhymes before the horns engage in spirited chatter. “Time to Rest” is the closing track and the longest at over eight minutes. Beginning with Person on flute over Pignato’s surging beats, it begins as a soundtrack for a great day at the beach, before the smooth sounds morph into a swelling mix of horns, electronica, and pulsating bass into which Coonan enters halfway through with a brief set of lines that push the musicians to further frenzied levels in the second half.

Tim LeFebvre’s four begin with “On the Avenue,” a feature for LaBombard and Jackson on guitar creating a John McLaughlin-like Mahavishnu Orchestra sound while “Away for Breaks” has the bass prominent in the mix amidst the two saxophonists and Coonan pleading for that elusive break and Jackson interjects guitar jabs. The bubbling “You to Be’ begins in the ethereal territory, conjuring a jungle-like environment imbued with various sounds from Davis as Lefebvre’s walking bass and Pignato’s bass forge a steady path through distorted guitar and ever-inventive effects in the alternating calm and frenetic passages. “Drowning” has the bass counteracting the opening high-pitched squeals after which Person plays aggressively to the rhythm tandem followed by Jackson’s twisted guitar statement.

Acoustic bassist Anthony Berman, a stalwart in the collective, takes all four of his in the latter half, beginning with Coonan saying “I just need a beer and a cigarette” in “Let the Song Play” in his most rhythmic rhyming tune here, courtesy of the rhythm tandem. Person follows on with a stirring flute solo as Pignato’s cymbals and Davis’s electronics create wavelike effects. “Peach Tea” is similar with Person taking the lead on flute with the piece picking up momentum as Jackson enters on guitar only to fade gently, one of the few tunes without Coonan who returns for “Cardinal,” (‘these red dots used to be yellow”). This is a meandering spoken-word number with saxophonists conversing with the energized Berman and PIgnato. “Matter You Can’t Feel,” unlike the previous three, begins with sheets of electronics before making way for Person’s alto, building again in dizzying, disorienting rushes only to again dissolve for LaBombard’s tenor and Coonan’s entry, restating memories of his childhood as he had done in the opening title track.

Generally, the pieces with the electric bass are filled with more electronic effects, arguably a little overdone in places, while Berman’s give more space for Person and LaBombard. Yet, just as one tries to make these distinctions, all are far more similar than different, proving again that different paths and techniques still result in the signature BDR sound, enriched and more bottom-heavy but still genre-agnostic, uncategorizable, and intensely thrilling. 

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