The Treehouse Project
May 23, 2003:
May 24, 2003
May 25, 2003:
May 26, 2003:
July 11, 2003:
News... The Treehouse Project is heading to the East Coast for four dates in late May, including a stop at New York's Knitting Factory. Specifics are in the column to the left.
The Picture Show continues to earn praise, most recently in the All-Music Guide. The review is at the bottom of the page.
Listen to an interview with The Treehouse Project's Mike Reed on Chicago Public Radio's morning program 848 (Real Player required).
Reviews... Here are some kind words that are being said about the new record, The Picture Show.
In his brilliant novel Aberration of Starlight (1980), Gilbert Sorrentino observes that "photographs, because they exclude everything, but the split second in which they were taken always lie. Still one stares at them, urging them to give up their truths." Michael Reed, director of Chicago's Emerging Improvisers Organization and prime mover of the Treehouse Project, has been doing his share of staring and urging. He conceives the Picture Show as a set of improvised wordless stories woven around old photos. For "Prologue: Cameo Frame", he selected six images, created a brief theme for each and allocated it to a single instrument. The musicians then maneuvered around the lead instrument in order to draw the story from the picture. Reed and bassist Matt Thompson, who has played with saxophonists Ira Sullivan and Von Freeman, mark out the time with some ingenuity. Jonathan Doyle improvises melodically on tenor saxophone and clarinet. Sturdy and knarled on the former, smooth and wistful on the latter., dropping plentiful hints of his extensive engagement with rootsty music, including The Wabash Jug Band. Ken Champion makes full use of the pedal steel guitar's aptitude for swing and swoon, but he's an associate of Jim O'Rourke and is equipped to venture out from the music's melodic heartland when necessary.
"The Picture Show", centerpiece of the tripytch, comprises pieces penned by Reed to tease truths from a further selection of photoraphs. Here the group is augmented by guitarist Coln Bunn with additional help from guests John Poston on banjo, pianist Brian Anderson, Trumpeter Nate Walcott, and Lisa Schrag on harp. Rock, R&B folk and bebob memories filter through. Bunn demonstrates expressive versatility and in this expanded context Doyle and Champion display the breadth of their combined ability to evoke mood and feeling.
Reed's pieces were conceived as wordless songs. On the concluding disc, "Epilogue: last... words", actual pop songs take the place of photos as the repositories of the past and its emotions. Lyrics are consigned to print on the sleeve while the quintet seek ways to preserve their meaning and impact. Pete Brown's words are dropped from Cream's "Politician", "Just a little loving" is adapted from Dusty Springfield's Memphis album and records by Ron Sexsmith, Ray Charles, Crosby Stills and Nash, and The Handsome Family are also plundered. It's a neat conceit based on jazz standard practice but, arguably, interest wanes a little as the project draws to a close. A three CD package may seem extravagant. The Picture Show offers around an hour and a half of music, well conceived and played with conviction.
All About Jazz
Drummer Michael Reed's Treehouse Project takes a decidedly idiosyncratic turn on The Picture Show. The tunes on this 3-CD set reflect a conscious marriage of image and music (or, in the case of the last disc, words and music). While the idea of tying music to art is not a novel one, this set twists the concept: each tune on The Picture Show has a companion photograph. The photos (mostly of the lo-fi home vintage) show people at various ages and in various settings, each hinting at a story. The Treehouse Project takes off from there. For example, on "The Slow Learners Club" (a black and white photo showing a group of bored-looking young people) moves through lumbering swing and bluesy passages, building off a simple theme and aiming toward clear resolution. The combination works. On "Big Top" (photo featuring a grade schooler in a shiny clown outfit) the group hits the circus theme big time, complete with a sing-song melody on clarinet and trumpet. Needless to say, each of these pieces expands into extended improvisation, but one has the sense at all times that the group has convened to convey a coherent message reflecting the image at hand.
The outright success of this project owes itself to three features: first, a collection of clever and thought-provoking images (and words); second, fluent exposition through highly varied compositions; and third, good old-fashioned group coherence and interplay. One gets the sense from The Picture Show that while structure may dictate the melody and harmonic structure, each player is free to add his or her own personality to the music. For the leader, Michael Reed, that manifests itself through understated support--percolating energy during quieter moments, fast-driving hits when the tempo picks up. For guitarist Colin Bunn, that translates into crystalline melodies, angular & twisted solos, and an ear for the unexpected. Saxophonist Jonathan Doyle has regular duty at the helm, and he uses that position to advantage exploring a wide range of styles from swing to blues to the uncategorizable beyond.
A few more high points. "The Party" (grainy '70s image of a family gathering) digs deep into a sauntering groove, high-spirited and celebratory. One can almost hear a kazoo solo midway through. "Never One To Complain" (a family gathered around a vintage Audi at the beach) waxes lyrical, bringing Ken Champion's pedal steel to the forefront for a reverberant, melancholy stroll. The last disc ( Last... Words ) takes on tunes by the likes of Cream, Ray Charles, and Ron Sexsmith, delivering alternate takes without words that owe their spirit to the original but are otherwise completely reworked. "You Don't Know Me" (Ray Charles) comes across as a rueful lament, slow-paced and quiet. The very brief "Just a Song Before I Go" (Crosby Stills & Nash) adopts open country harmonies and a reverberant soft tone. If you look at the words behind this music, the correspondence remains as clear as it is on the other discs where tunes are matched to image.
For a project this ambitious, The Picture Show is remarkably successful. This set spans an extremely broad range of styles, traveling through sound and image with a fluidity that is almost surreal. Sure, certain tunes might seem overly simplistic or stylized, but that's the band's prerogative in response to the subject material. The Treehouse Project has really evolved and dramatically expanded its sound since its 1999 eponymous debut. It will be exciting to hear what the group tackles next.
The Picture Show is a three-disc set by the Treehouse Project that attempts to invoke mental images of the music as it unfolds from a collage of dissimilar styles into a common Jazz form. Family photographs were used as the composing stimulus for each song, and the band melds its playing around the conceptual thoughts of each shot. Led by drummer and composer Reed, the music has a strong link to the past and a firm foot in the present. Their sound, which is distinguished by the pedal steel guitar and the raucous tenor and clarinet playing of Doyle, is quite unique. Guitarist Bunn and bassist Thompson, who also plays the ukelele violin, round out the core group.
Prologue: Cameo Frame opens with the quartet of Champion, Doyle, Reed and Thompson. They paint an abbreviated history of Jazz in short episodes, including tributes to the slow drag, the barrelhouse style, an advanced form of New Orleans music, dirty dancing, an infectious form of military cadence, and modern country and western. Doyle plays a dominant role in telling these stories, whether he is eking out high passages on clarinet or spiriting the band in a robust manner on tenor. Reed aptly projects the rhythm patterns for all these variations and is typically an up-front, pervasive force on all the selections. There are minor touches of less constrained playing that surface in spurts, but structure and definable rhythm patterns prevail behind the coralled improvisations.
The main phase of the project is The Picture Show. On this second disc, Bunn joins with Champion in giving double guitar support, although the pedal steel version has a very different tonality than the standard electric instrument. It opens with the rhythm & blues beat of the late 1950s, where the guitarists get funky and Doyle takes on the honking style of that day. The music segues into bluesy melodies where the soloists become mellow, and then it sashays to a western motif with the C&W sound of the steel guitar establishing the trail. A touch of German beer tent beat is simulated as well. Pianist Anderson, harpist Shrag, trumpeter Walcott, and banjo player Poston add further coloring and distinctiveness to this chameleonic music. Bebop, post bop, and numerous variations thereon follow to permit the musicians to change their identity for a moment in time. The progression of styles stops short of the free improvisation period, keeping the program frozen in time at its most forward point.
Epilogue: Last...Words closes the trilogy with a retreat to upbeat country swing mixed with the rhythm and blues beat. The core quintet handles the duties. They take a different tack by focusing on music more identifiable with vocalists than instrumentalists. The tunes, none of which is written by Reed, have a more structured posture, allowing the original lyrics of the songs to surface in one's mind. Some improvisation occurs, but the intent is to honor the song form.
The Treehouse Project is a very interesting group of musicians. They tackle many retro genres of Jazz and its derivatives and give an updated view of each through their solid musicality. The structure at times is inhibiting, but the playing consistently works around this. Reed has capably communicated what he saw in the photographs to his audience.
THE PICTURE SHOW is a 3-CD boxed set of contemporary jazz, featuring original music and a group of young jazz musicians performing in topnotch form. THE PICTURE SHOW features 3 CDs: PROLOGUE: CAMEO FRAME, THE PICTURE SHOW, EPILOGUE: LAST...WORDS.
Hearing is believing, and this is an enjoyable excursion of intricate jazz solos and good harmony. THE PICTURE SHOW CD contains 13 selections, and each one contains high entertainment value. The other 2 CDs contain 7 and 8 selections.
If you are looking for something that is a combination of good jazz and intricate performances, this collection is surprisingly good, lively, and interesting. The Treehouse Project is a winner and so is its creation, THE PICTURE SHOW.
Their backgrounds are many, from avant-garde to Nouveau Swing - their sound is cerebral, with sharp edges and unexpected turns. For this three-disc box set, drummer Michael Reed gathered a bunch of old photos; each picture inspired a short theme, which was shown to the group on the day of recording. The goal was spontaneity while the result was surprisingly ordered - a feast of soulful tunes, cooked under pressure.
The first CD, subtitled Cameo Frame, is a study in stripped-down funk. Reed slams the beat hard on "The Party"; Matt Thompson's bass is limber and menacing. The tenor is smoky, with lazy belligerent notes - his name is Jonathan Doyle and he demands your attention. Thompson's solo is a weird kind of calypso; the drums remain tough, and the horn bleats a finale.
"Slow Boat" is something else: Doyle mumbles a phrase (it's similar to "Lullaby of the Leaves") while submerged in the chords of a pedal-steel guitar. Ken Champion sounds like a cool jazzman, while faithful to the instrument's roots - a definition of High Lonesome. His solo is something to behold; so is Doyle's, shrieking into the empty night air. "Little Pick-Me-Up" tips its hat to Raymond Scott, with a pert clarinet (Doyle), weird melting strings (Thompson), and lots of quirky swing. The reed toodles one moment, only to honk the next - this recalls the musical past while sounding nothing like it. Champion yawns on "Never One to Complain", rolling on a slow sonic highway. The clarinet is back, and it's rather reedy like a harmonica by the campfire. "Graduation Day" makes like a Memphis horn riff, only played by pedal steel. This one belongs to Champion, stretching those notes for sad, beautiful moments. The disc is now over, and it's worth a thousand pictures.
Disc Two, called The Picture Show, has the same format as the first: the group is now a quintet, with Colin Bunn on guitar and an assortment of special guests. This gets a bit crowded on "Hold It! Hold It!": Bunn and Champion trace each other's steps, which is interesting if overdone. Doyle does his part with an angular solo. "The Ugliest Girl Alive" bears some resemblance to "It Ain't Necessarily So" (!) - Ken twangs as Jonathan shouts. "The Big Top" is a noisy place, where Doyle's clarinet spins circles with Nate Walcott's trumpet. With Reed clicking his sticks frantically, Colin jangles a harsh waltz - this isn't a circus but a quirky carnival.
"The Cocktail Party Effect" is one of deterioration (a bebop theme turns very freaky, very fast.) A gentle waltz grows fangs on "A Perfect Fit" (Doyle is rusty and wonderful) and quietude reigns on "A Place for Us", where guitar and banjo flow like a river, and a clarinet drifts among them. While uneven, this disc may have the best songs of the package and the best moods.
The final CD is the shortest, and most conventional. Titled Last Words, the quintet from Disc Two plays a series of vocal tunes as instrumentals, with the oomph they displayed on Disc One. Ken is the star of "Politician", imbuing each note with the greasy blues. Doyle is loud, but lacks a sense of direction - for once he doesn't have much to say. (The opposite goes for Thompson; listen to that fuzz tone.)
Jonathan purrs on "Just a Little Lovin'", with a Desmond tone so right for this song. Behind him the brushes tap, and Champion chimes like a clock so simple and so sweet. Colin weeps for the "Child Star", placing precise, poignant notes. In the background Jonathan moves, a clarinet as feathery as the brushes behind him. The same reed is anguished on "Dutch Boy": it sounds like a last-chance hymn, and Bunn has his best solo. Thoughtful and emotional, often abstract but never esoteric, this music cannot be classified. Simply listen as the scenes play out and enjoy the show.
Usually when people talk about jazz-fusion, the music being defined is attached to showy instrumental rock. Other familiar fusions involve yoking a jazz sensibility to Latin American timbres or to so-called classical music. But on this three-CD set the five plus members of The Treehouse Project have created their own fusion.
It's a double fusion in fact. First of all, these Chicago-area players have added a jazz sensibility to roots music, coming up with the sort of sounds that may have resulted if anyone had a record of the legendary episode Charlie Parker was supposed to have sat in with a hillbilly band. Secondly, each of the three CDs treats the songs in different ways. The third disc finds the band doing nightclub style instrumental versions of folk, pop and rock hits initially recorded by folks like Cream, Dusty Springfield, Ray Charles and Ron Sexsmith. The second CD -- and centrepiece of the project -- contains 13 compositions written by drummer Michael Reed, reflecting the messages and ideas he gleaned from a number of home snapshots. The first session takes this idea even further, with all band members shown another random group of photos, usually taken in suburban settings, and asked to create musical stories that reflect them all...
Jazz-rooted good time music characterizes Reed's vision, with 13 different photos examined in slightly more than 39 minutes. Contributing to this ambiance are the post-country, pedal steel guitar contributions of Ken Champion. Someone who has recorded with Chicago avant rocker Jim O'Rourke, the ringing tones emanating from his eight-string open up new sound vistas. On "Dance Lesson," for instance, a slinky Henry Mancini-style number, his resoundings meld with Reed's rim shots, suggesting what would have happened if George Benson had discovered country music before Ray Charles did.
Doyle, who has put in time with the Wabash Jug Band as well as one led by jazz drummer Dave Pavkovic, not only enlivens tunes like the latinesque "Ugliest Girl Alive" with his sax playing, but shows a command of both registers of the clarinet throughout. Especially noteworthy is his abstruse liquid tone on "The Big Top," adding to Reed's subtle rim shots and drumstick percussion, while somebody or somebodies manages to produce a circus-like calliope sound. The licorice stick is much in evidence on "The Cocktail Party Effect," which despite its title has a guitar-guided melody that sounds as if it came off of a 1930s tap dance session.
Guitarist Bunn, who is part of Kevin O'Donnell's Quality Six retro swing band, proves here that he can channel Carl Kress, when he isn't being Link Wray on rock tunes such as "A Perfect Fit." Throughout, Matt Thompson holds steady a solid bass line, easily explaining how his experience has encompassed blues with the Mighty Blue Kings and jazz with Chicago's legendary tenor man Von Freeman.
[excerpted here. the full review appears at www.jazzweekly.com]
The All-Music Guide
Further evidence that the city of Chicago has been spearheading a new jazz renaissance at the dawn of the 21st century can be heard on the concept album The Picture Show by a loose amalgam of musicians know as the Treehouse Project, informally led by drummer Michael Reed. Consisting of three separate CDs, The Picture Show is an indeterminate series of recordings, respectively called "Prologue: Cameo Frame," "The Picture Show," and "Epilogue: Last...Words," based on photographs. These photographs were shown to the musicians at the time of recording and not before. Some of the photographs had a single line of text across the middle or underneath as a caption, allowing the musicians to create a relational force between the visual, the written, and the aural. Based around a loose quartet of Reed , pedal steel guitar player Ken Champion from Jim O'Rourke 's band, bassist Matt Thompson , and saxophonist Jonathan Doyle , the band is rounded out on the second disc by no less than five other players on everything from guitar to banjo to trumpet and violin. There is little any critic can do to describe what can be heard here, save to say that the music is gorgeous, accessible, adventurous, and poetic. And it is, even with this crazy instrumentation, jazz, and it does swing so lyrically and beautifully there are certain pastoral passages on the first and last discs in this set to make one want to weep. Singling out tracks is ridiculous on a project like this; its poetic and thematic constructs are antithetical to anything less than a complete structural inquiry, where not only the written and musical text meet the visual one, but also where the musical miscegenation lends itself to bleed the jazz genre as well as those of other American musics and weave them into a loose, yet gorgeously developed and articulated whole. The Picture Show was a massive undertaking in both breadth and scope, one that might have well had disastrous and pretentious results. The final product is anything but. It is a collaborative and fully realized project that demands -- even in its own quiet way -- to be heard and savored and learned from. Brilliant.