Nonch Harpin’ ‘Native Sons’ (Private Press) 4/5

nonch-harpinDiscovering a great new band is always a thrill, especially when they write and perform new tunes with a fresh originality. And so let me introduce you to five musicians from Boonville in Northern California. Collectively known as Nonch Harpin’, the band name derives from ‘Boontiling’; a jargon spoken in that part of the world, which roughly translates as ‘dirty talk’. An apt name if ever there was one when you hear their music. Chinh Tran plays tenor and soprano sax, Shawn Ellis double bass, Andy Markham electric and acoustic guitars, Daniel Raynaud keyboards and piano, and Alan Spearot drums. Together they forge an incredibly unique sound, delivering jazz with a heavy dose of blues, funk, grunge and Americana. And it’s not just their exciting tunes and impeccable performances that deserve praise, it’s the band’s ‘sound’ that also stands out a mile. How rare is it these days that a band take the time to create an original feel to best deliver what they’re about? They obviously knew what they wanted and they found a way of achieving it. The band resolved that the means by which they recorded “Native Sons” needed to be as funky, rough-hewn and as DIY as the music itself. The first attempt, at the 150 year old Native Sons Hall in Pescadero, CA, fell a bit short of the mark, sonically. So they set about building a project studio in a barn on keyboardist Daniel Raynaud’s property. They created their own environment in which they had all the time and creative space to let fly. And somehow, the spirit of that initial attempt to record in an old rustic gathering hall had led them to the album’s name, and more importantly, their sound. I love this story, not just because it really does have relevance when you listen to the album, but also it reminds me of how well a ‘lo-fi’ sound can work for some bands. Think Neil Young’s “Tonight’s The Night” or any of his ‘cow shed’ recordings from the mid 70’s, or even the early albums of someone like ‘The Black Keys”. It works so well ’cause it’s just so right for the music. But as a jazz recording?… well yes! But then this is jazz entering the room by the backdoor, the dirty blues and funky grooves ricocheting off all four walls.

The quirkiness of the music on “Native Sons”, the band’s debut album, is also reflected in the choice of song titles. The session kicks off with the spirited “Mr Rocket Boots Celery Man”. Need I say more? This is a band enjoying themselves as Markham’s guitar riff soon enters new territory with no-nonsense drums and a developing funky groove that would get any old timer’s cowboy boots dancing. Some of the tunes work better than others, and for me there are a half a dozen absolutely brilliant stand-out tracks. These are where the band’s togetherness and wonderful writing really sparkles. The first of these is “Melody For a Woodland Cabana”. Tran’s soprano saxophone soars above a deep groove expertly laid down by Ellis’ double bass. The chord changes on the ‘chorus’ send a shiver down the spine. Thoughtful and inventive, “Lil Antonin Scala” begins with some great guitar harmonics before a cool bass riff leads us into full band showering the listener with a gorgeous melody, keys and sax intertwining and breaking out into rich, provocative solos. And then we have sheep. Why? Who cares? Welcome to “By The Way, Frances”, an awesome piece of groove-laid exuberance. You just cannot fail to love this- man it’s sooooo good! Markham and Tran are on fire, letting rip with pure unbridled enigmatic energy. There’s a nice change of pace on “Souphounds and Strays”, featuring some lovely, sensitive playing, especially from Markham’s acoustic guitar. The kick-ass drumming of Speakot throws down the gauntlet on “Brown Rice Is A Bummer”, with the band responding with equal passion. There’s not that much room for subtlety here, but on “A Forgotten Guitar” the quintet show they’re more than capable of making music that’s deeply moving and sensitive too. A long track, it gives each member of the band room to solo, with Markham sounding like a Bill Frisell/ Richard Thompson hybrid, Raynaud doing that Zawinul thing, and Tran providing a Lavano-like melody, it all makes for a memorable piece of music. And all in all, an excellent debut album.

My God how I would like to see this band live. Come on guys, get your passports out, get a plane, a boat, whatever, and visit us here in the UK. OK, so it rains a lot over here, but who cares, we’ll cook you breakfast, hire you a beat-up bus, and unleash you on the unsuspecting public. You’ll knock ’em for six. The warm beer awaits my friends…

Mike Gates