Live at Home
The second part of the AACM dictum of “Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future” surprisingly holds little cross-genre sway. Though groups of many stripes can lay claim to a broad range of influences and an output to match, a true understanding of those forebears is extremely rare, especially when those influences are both within and without from the “jazz” spectrum. Grex is a thankful anomaly in contemporary music, merging not only an affinity, but a true love for creative improvised music on par with folk-rock, psychedelia and modern composition. Formed at Mills College, Grex consists of the duo of guitarist/vocalist Karl Alfonso Evangelista and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Rei Scampavia on eight originals as well as covers of “Autumn Leaves” (a fuzz march) and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” (recast as “Luke Skywalker’s Day” with a fragment from the Star Wars theme).
The opening flute/guitar piece, an introduction to “Little Me,” recalls guitarist-composer Michael Gregory’s “Clarity” theme, which upon extension into a multi-part piece for electric piano, guitar and vocals, reveals a striking compositional sense. Evangelista’s plugged-in wrangling has a progressive purity as well as a grungy ring, filling nooks and sailing over piano parts that shift from jaunty waltz to fleet clangor. But what really sets “Little Me” apart is Scampavia’s lyric delivery, a mournful plea for companionship and understanding in a surreal animal/human relationship that’s both dark and twee, contrasting enormously with the preceding McLaughlin-like guitar solo and recasting all preceding expressions. There’s a K Records-like boom-box overdrive to “Feelin’ Squiddy,” as Evangelista channels Pete Townshend and Sonny Sharrock in a landscape of melodica, piano, and an ode to marine life. Though subdued, the harmonies on “Retlaw” recall the halcyon days of bands like Superchunk, while backing by wiry, odd-interval guitar and droning keyboards point to an entirely different set of rules. Flute, vibes, rhythmic scratch and island slink imbue “Serious Business,” which would have fit nicely on a late 1970s Saravah side, and while the interplay between instrumental choices is interesting, their merger with biomorphic stories of love and loss is totally unique. Live at Home is full of such surprises as the boppish guitar-piano cadenzas that bubble up in “Tater Corpse,” or the unhinged feedback explosion that stretches the seams of flute-aided lope in “Perseid.” Hopefully Grex gets some love from the indie-rock taste machine, because they are onto something really special.