Micromassé: Because You Have Friends

Party like it’s 1986

Micromassé bring their Friends to the party

Twelve songs and 45 minutes: So over! The single reigns supreme.

No wonder instrumental trio Micromassé chose to follow-up their debut self-titled full-length with a two-song maxi-single of sorts. How very contemporary [this was written in late 2014].

Except that they printed it up on a CD and gave it a proper title, Because You Have Friends. With a “Side A” and a “Side B,” even if they’re only one long song each. How very 1986.

That was the year, of course, that Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush released “Don’t Give Up,” which Micromassé cover as their opening track, with Sara Hallie Richardson donating her skills to cover both the verse and chorus parts and Lucas Desmond, Joe Parra and Dave Noyes lending horn talents (hence the album title: the lyric from the song and all the guest types).

Heard the full album version of “Don’t Give Up” lately? Off So? It’s actually pretty funky, with two distinct movements and a touch of afrobeat, stretching out past six minutes (of the numerous cover versions, I’ll take Willie Nelson and Sinead O’Connor). Micromassé get that all out of the way in about 3:25. Richardson sings the verses in feverish double time, then takes a few beats to hit the Bush falsetto in the chorus, and it turns the song inside out, making “the trees had burned down to the ground” sound like an upbeat Irish reel.

By the “we’re proud of who you are” finishing lyrics, she’s in full-voice vibrato, more aggressive than you’ve heard her, dialing up the song’s intensity. Still, though, the track’s only halfway done.

Then it’s time for the funk (in a non-cheesy way), Max Cantlin laying down a hopping bass and Pete Dugas firing in organ chords before a three-piece horn section turns it into a rave-up, with Richardson just languidly dripping in takes on the title phrase. Two takes on the same song, one rock-pop, the other open jazz, back to back, one track. And a lot of fun.

“Tout Le Monde,” the side B written by Dugas, is much more Herbie Hancock. Parra’s baritone sax is a fat bleat in the opening riffs and the first great break comes from Chris Sweet on the conga/percussion break, which is joined by Dugas with unique percussive organ work.

Later, at six minutes or so, the percussion drops away to nothing but handclaps and we get a series of riffs from Noyes on the trombone and Desmond on the alto sax, with Cantlin laying down a wicka-wicka behind them that’s only in the right channel. The contrast with the intense opening track is striking – this is laid back, messing around, seeing what happens. It’s hard not to get a kick out of the interplay and choreography.

By the time everyone comes back in for the full-band sound, they’re just rolling, with a big band sound like one of those New Orleans stages full of family friends.

But we’re referencing 1986 here, remember, so you’d better be expecting the digital interruption that comes in late, like someone changed the channel to the digital input so they could resume a game of Frogger (watch out for the random fast cars!). It rips you right out of the pocket.

Not to worry, though. It’s only 20 seconds worth, and then it’s right back to the jam, horns swelling and jabbing, organ in lock step, drums conjuring up dreams of Cuba in a sweaty close out that finally stretches past 10 minutes.

Really, Micromassé as a trio works just fine, a jazz outfit rolled in future dust with a great album of smart instrumentals, but these friends are difference makers that create a funkier complement to some of the great R&B outfits Portland has put together (Inside Straight, Model Airplane, etc.). It’s likely a one-off, but that’s more than fine if Micromassé has a few more ideas for creative expression up their sleeves.

Micromassé: Micromassé

Meeting Micromassé

Jazz, writ large and small

The Fogcutters have to be one of the better local music stories of the past decade. You know you’ve got a local fanbase with taste when one of the most popular acts is an old-time big band doing everything from traditional swing to hip-hop covers.

So maybe there’s room for Micromassé, also featuring guitarist Max Cantlin and playing old-time jazz, though this time in trio format, and all originals, and without any singing. Cantlin, also known for his work with Gypsy Tailwind/Anna Lombard and This Way, is joined by organist Peter Dugas (the Awesome, Inside Straight, Zion Train, etc.) and drummer Chris Sweet (Zach Jones, Dan Capaldi, Radiation Year) in creating a tight group that throws back to the hey-day of bop-style jazz, while bringing in elements of R&B, pop, and Latin works.

This isn’t American Standard Songbook stuff, though. There’s fusion at work here, and Dugas writes all the pieces, so there are times when everything sounds completely contemporary, but it’s more often you’ll be reminded of the likes of Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery on the guitar, or Rhoda Scott and Herbie Hancock on the organ.

Okay, maybe not as out there as Hancock got, but check out Scott if you don’t know her. She could rip and Dugas can certainly lay it down, with plenty of bass notes from his feet, too.

That’s how he starts “Novi Sad,” a 10-minute midpoint in the band’s 10-song self-titled debut album. Actually, it’s a cowbell from Sweet that goes first, but then comes Dugas’ moody bass and trudging chords, setting up a foundation for Cantlin’s guitar to ride on, just a series of repeating riffs, feeling the way through the song’s open. It’s a completely organic experience that manages to feel digital in the way each instrument introduces repeating parts, transitions them to something else, and then exits for a bit. Like a producer with nearly infinite riffs at her disposal.

Then, with about 1:20 to go, the whole thing fades out and introduces an entirely new song for a rousing jam, like Nigel Hall midway through a 20-minute jam, but less manic and Sweet’s got a lighter hand than most jam or R&B/soul drummers.

Why make that bit part of the larger 10-minute track? Well, Micromassé don’t have to explain themselves to you. They’re going to go wherever their fancy takes them, whether it’s into a soaring crescendo that crests and plays out in “Tamed Cynic,” before a Dugas freak out that ends in a solitary note like a laser beam, or Cantlin doing an upstroke and playful chime in “Hinche,” then moving to an improvised group of phrases that seem to come to him after a moment’s listen to what the universe is whispering in his ear.

My personal favorite is probably “Ruelle Des Urculines,” a waltzing ballroom tune that still manages to open like Midnight Marauders. The organ is sing-songy like a an ‘80s sitcom – is that Jack Tripper bouncing around the corner? Sweet is crisp with the high hat and Cantlin is reserved in his chimes so Dugas really has the floor. Later, Cantlin comes busting in easy and free, like California beaches and the wind in your hair.

“Fero City Shuffle” is pretty easy to sidle up to, too, with a big whack on the snare for a consistent beat and Dugas picking out a strutting bass with his feet. This is the most bluesy tune here, and there are echoes of that Buddy Guy revival that happened in the guitar lead, but the chorus (I think you can call it that) picks up the rock vibe and the song ends in a hurry, too short.

You can say that for the album as whole, actually. It seems to end before you’re ready for it. It’s belittling the work to say it’s great background music while you’re working or reading, but it sure does work for that sort of thing. It also works just fine if you want to put it on and make listening to it your primary occupation.

Photo credit: Erin Little