Brian Woodbury
Variety Orchestra

(ReR/Some Phil)

Sometimes it happens: one finds a really good album by an artist that's totally unknown to the listener, then one seems to lose all traces of the artist... forever. This is what happened to me in the case of Brian Woodbury and his album called Brian Woodbury And His Popular Music Group, released in 1992. An album that featured really unusual songs, which sounded "modern" and "classic" at the same time, aware of the past but absolutely non-nostalgic, which wore their influences on their sleeves without sounding imitative; quite ironic, too, but never recurring to pastiche. Five years later, I was quite puzzled by Shenandoah/Innsbruck, the track which appeared in Volume 4, Number 2 of the ReR Quarterly: though of high quality, the track reminded me a lot of Van Dyke Parks - but not of the Brian Woodbury I knew. Then, nothing. So it's a nice surprise hearing this album, Variety Orchestra - while thanks to the Web, Brian Woodbury's life, CV and discography are not a mystery anymore.

I'm quite pleased I can say that Variety Orchestra is a very good album, full of an intelligence that's quite accessible but that becomes apparent after repeated listenings; a work that manages to sound new and fresh even if its building blocks are known. A large line-up, an instrumentation that's not that common (trumpets, percussions, basses, banjos, violins, saxophones and accordions), a lot of styles, but played with a sentimental attitude that never sounds "postmodern". The most familiar names for me were those of Marc Feldman and Sarah Parkins (on violins) and of Guy Klucevsek (on accordion); some of the musicians who are featured here had already played on the aforementioned album - it was with much surprise that I saw that I am quite familiar with their regular employers!

The first track, Take The J Train, is a good example of the stylistic variety of this album, a very ROVA-like baritone being followed by a lyrical air for steel guitar. There's a beautiful (and - for this writer - original) mixture of minimalistic propulsion and jazz moments in the next track, Mom. Muted trumpets and mariachi atmospheres appear in Garbanzo Beans, while in Venice, Italy one can breath a Latin air. Jesus Christ Alrighty sounds like greasy R&B, with a tenor sax that's highly reminiscent of Gary Windo and a progression (complete with organ) which reminded me of Carla Bley (whose name, along with Oregon, Henry Threadgill and Fred Frith, is mentioned on the booklet cover under "inspiration"). I'd hate to give the reader the impression that this album sounds like a derivative work - if it's true that the rhythm track and the "Balkanic" violin line in Long May She Wave are very reminiscent of Fred Frith's Gravity, the following vibes are a touch that's compositionally original. As brilliantly demonstrated on Threnody For Kennedy And Connally, Woodbury is more than a very clever arranger - just listen to the melody that appears at about 2'20", absolutely unexpected after all that preceded it.

If there is something "wrong" in this work, it's only its being too intelligent for its own good given the current climates. In the last few years some line-ups have managed to sell mixtures that were not too inspired. Woodbury lives on a different plane. But for those who take the time to listen to this album the only danger is that of discovering something that's highly valuable.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004 | May 26, 2004