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Slanted Enchantment

A jazz quartet tribute to Pavement is, inexplicably, a roaring success

Ali Jackson, big-shot jazz drummer extraordinaire, won't claim encyclopedic knowledge of indie rock, but he does like him some Pavement. "I like that hit that they had on MTV, that 'Cut Your Hair,' " he enthuses. "It's real catchy and real earthy, just playin' around, like you play around like kids play around. Like 'Ring Around the Rosie.' "

Indeed, Stockton, California's favorite sons always seemed a bit amateurish, childlike, and in constant danger of, like the proverbial ashes, all falling down. But they never did, and now they're deified American rock royalty, so an ebullient version of 1994's "Cut Your Hair," that hit they sorta had, appears on Gold Sounds, the world's first Pavement jazz tribute record.

This is a bit odd.

Pavement, you see, did not exactly perform with a jazzman's technical acumen or precision -- idiot savants, maybe, but certainly not virtuosos. Jazz covers of pop/rock hits remain wildly popular as crossover attempts and look-how-with-it-I-am boasts, but they usually target artier, more elaborate fare (Radiohead jazz is practically its own genre). But the grunged-up, shambling, barely-in-tune "Cut Your Hair"? As jazz?

Absolutely. James Carter (described in Gold Sounds' liner notes as "John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler rolled into one," say what?) greets us with shrieking, atonal sax, which gives way to a crawling soul shuffle into Cyrus Chestnut's warm organ lines floating atop Reginald Veal's bass and Ali's own precise drumming. Light, airy, comforting. But five minutes in, it suddenly, joyously explodes, doubling in tempo and exuberance, Ali raining down bombastic rock-drum fills while a pack of cooing soul singers echoes and refines the original's now-iconic chorus: Doo-doo doo-doo-doo, doo-doo doo-doo-doo, doo-ahhhhh. The deliberately sloppy becomes precise and confident; the emotionally distant becomes ecstatically direct.

The trick, Ali insists, is to see that thread from the beginning. "Pavement's musical style and direction, even though it's a limited musical knowledge -- it has a presence and a statement and a vibration that comes across in their music," he says, chatting on the phone from a touring gig with Wynton Marsalis. "Music can be extremely intellectual, and it can be extremely basic. And that's the beauty of it."

Gold Sounds, the brainchild of the nascent NYC outfit Brown Brothers Recordings, sounds initially like a cheap, contrived stunt. The liner notes admit the label basically threw Ali, James, Cyrus and Reginald together fantasy-baseball-style; Ali himself knew little about Pavement before he got the call. But the four seasoned jazzmen -- at 29, Ali is the youngest -- had played before in various configurations, and that familiarity and warmth immediately transform tracks like "Stereo" and "Summer Babe" from cheap tricks into inspired re-creations. The slinky bass line to "Blue Hawaiian" (a hidden gem from 1999's Brighten the Corners) translates perfectly from cheeky beach-bum indie-rock to mellow down-tempo jazz, and Cyrus turns the Slanted & Enchanted standout "Trigger Cut" into a solo Jelly Roll-ing piano romp.

But the monster here is "Here," the closest Slanted got to a conventional ballad, totally pushed by James's moaning soprano sax into makeout anthem glory for Gold Sounds. It's an unabashedly cheesy, nearly smooth-jazz moment, but it's brave, honest and beautiful. Most jazz reworkings make simple things complicated, but "Here" does the opposite, disregarding Pavement's facade of apathetic cool and exposing the yearning melodies beneath.

Hopefully it will prove as eye-opening to lifelong Pavement fans as it did to Ali. "I knew a little bit, just from, like, MTV," he recalls. "That's it. I didn't really know a lot about them, but after I watched their documentary and listened to all of their records, then I had a lot better understanding of what they were about."

That doc, 2002's DVD release Slow Century, was particularly instructive. "Even though it was very kinda amateurish and very basic, they had a sound and a vibration," Ali says. "The characters in the band, they're just kinda wild." Especially original drummer Gary Young, Pavement's wildly unhinged Party Animal Imitating the Muppets' Animal figure. "He was just wild, just floatin' through life, live hour to hour," Ali says. "Cats just be gettin' high…whatever. Wherever life, wherever the wind blows. And that's a perspective on life. Culturally, the vibration of some people's reality. It's interesting, and their music has that; it's just like, 'This is the talent that we have, this is what we're presentin'. We love music, and this is our offering, whatever.' With limited skills. That's the beauty of music."

For now Gold Sounds is largely an Internet phenomenon (enjoy the dune-buggy intro at www.brownbrothersrecordings.com) -- the quartet has a string of NYC shows later this month, with the hope of hitting the touring and festival circuit next year. Meanwhile, other pop-into-jazz heavyweights like Brad Mehldau (whose new disc, Day Is Done, begins with a flashy meditation on Radiohead's "Knives Out") and the Bad Plus (famed for jazzing up Blondie, Aphex Twin and Nirvana) roll merrily on, but now they have a new paragon to aspire to, one that jacks up the fancy-pants technical virtuosity but alerts you to the warmth you might've forgotten or missed entirely in the original. Pavement's corners are now even brighter.

 
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