The Upshot: Lord of the rings: The Giant Sand maestro opts for a traditionalist, Cole Porter-esque route this time out via minimal, elegant jazz trio arrangements cut in Amsterdam, New York, and Tucson—think of it all as a cowboy’s wry take on an old, city slicker waltz.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Howe Gelb, the desert country troubadour best known for Giant Sand, has discovered a late-blooming fascination for Tin Pan Alley professionalism, working for Future Standards in the brush-shuffling, key tickling traditions of Cole Porter and Hoagie Carmichael. These 12 originals pay tribute to an artform up to now best preserved in certain piano lounges, at its best sophisticated, literate and jazz-infused, at its worst – well you’ve been at a Holiday Inn bar in the boonies one or twice, haven’t you?
Gelb’s stab at this hits above the median in this continuum. It’s restrained, understated and subtle to a fault, working in late-night timbres of walking bass, tamped down drums and shivering, glittering piano runs. He recorded the album in three different locales (Amsterdam, New York, Tucson) with different bands, but each time with a minimal, elegant jazz trio. There’s deep quiet in the spaces between the notes, a ruminative pause between knotty runs of polysyllabic words. Some of the cuts sport a bit of swagger (“Relevant”), others doze in fuzzy nocturnal reveries (“A Book You’ve Read Before”), but all hang back from any obvious ingratiation or excitement.
Gelb is quite a good piano player, and he’s backed by excellent musicians, so the music is quite good. He’s also always been a verbal trickster — the puns and rhymes here are no more complicated, in my view, than the ones on Giant Sand’s Provisions — so the wordplay a la Cole Porter is not so very far of a reach. He is not, by any stretch, a jazz singer. With his laconic baritone, he implies the melody, rather than singing it; only when Lonna Kelley joins, rather lovely in with her sleepy, vibrato-less soprano, you hear the tune itself, rather than a talk-sung approximation of it. The result is that though these songs are originals and brand new, these versions feel like covers, a cowboy’s wry take on an old, city slicker waltz.
Over the years, Gelb has experimented with lots of styles, psychedelic alt-country, gypsy guitars, gospel, blues and rock. There’s no reason not to tackle American standards, not if that’s what he wants to do. Still, to me, Future Standards feels a little too respectful, well-done but static and without much animating fire.
DOWNLOAD: “Terribly So”