Cowboys and Frenchmen ‘Bluer Than You Think’ CD/DIG (Outside In Music) 4/5

Cowboys and Frenchmen are a US based quintet led by saxophonists/composers Owen Broder and Ethan Helm. For this, their second release, they team up with Chris Ziemba on piano, Ethan O’Reilly on bass and Matt Honor on drums. Together, the band make a glorious sound – more like a larger ensemble at times – providing intriguing, innovative and sublime music. They deftly weave ideas from a broad spectrum of influences into their sound. “There is no one tune that encapsulates our sound, and that’s what we like about the band. When looking for inspiration, we are not reaching beyond ourselves to create some sort of post-modern stylistic collage, but reaching within ourselves to access the multitudes we contain as artists and human beings.” says Helm about their genre-bending aesthetic. And ‘human’ is an apt word to use when listening to this band. There’s something I can’t quite put my finger on here, the music sounding very personal and quietly, broodingly intense at times. It’s as if what comes from within them to create the music also shines an all-seeing light on humanity itself, revealing all that is bold and beautiful, along with all that is dark and destructive.

Each composition on “Bluer Than You Think” has been thoughtfully conceived and draws out the individual personalities within the whole of the ensemble. There is an openness and almost laborious feel to the beginning of the first tune, “Wayfarer”. A feature of the album is how well the saxes work together, their harmonies rich and beautiful, warm and comforting. The two leaders both enjoy such an effortless grace of sound on their playing, capable of the quaintest subtlety as well as dazzling strength and power. As “Wayfarer” develops as a tune, the saxes criss-cross and interweave before breaking out on their own. This is so stylishly innovative in the way it’s performed that it really does take the listener on a journey of intrigue and adventure. “Beasts” is made up of repeating patterns and rhythms. Daring and somewhat otherworldly its strength lies in its element of surprise. The late-night chilled yet in-the-pocket groove of “Companion Plan” is one of those tunes where its foot-tapping ease of listening belies its complexities. The quintet gel perfectly, making the most of the skillful writing. “Lillies under the bridge” is a serene ballad with a twist. What seems like a calm, gorgeous ballad from the piano, bass and drums point of view, changes mood when the saxes come in. It’s a daring piece from the reedmen, as they perform a harmony and melody that swirls, twists and turns, very expressive and impressionistic. I’ve listened to this tune several times now, and I’m still not sure whether I would say I like it or not, but it is clever and different and has to be listened to. “Clear Head” has a folky element to it that pushes and prods with playful delight. The band seem to revel in the pleasure of it all, quirky melodies meeting sublime soloing head-on. The title track, “Bluer than you think”, begins as a bass-led blues piece, with piano and drums driving it forward, before the paired-up saxes once more take it on to another place. This is jazz of the highest calibre, both in the nature of the composition and the performances from the musicians in bringing it to life. The brooding “C&F Jam” could be a conversation between two people at odds with one another – each trying to put their own point of view across in a duelling fashion. The album is rounded off with “Uncommon Sense”, a jaunty yet smiley piece of music that ends the session in an uplifting manner.

“Bluer than you think” is a musical exploration that works so well on many levels. From melancholy to melodrama and back again, it makes for a richly rewarding listen. It’s a pleasure to hear a band that have the courage of their convictions and the music is all the better for it. Brave and quirky, sublime and expressive, this is an album that could surprise and delight many jazz listeners – well worth discovering.

Mike Gates