Ben Perowsky’s Moodswing Orchestra: Cohesive Collisions of Rock and Jazz

Ben Perowsky’s Moodswing Orchestra: “Dolly”
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Even after several decades of cross-pollination between the worlds of rock and jazz, it could be argued that a true (or at least natural-sounding) hybrid has yet to be invented. Ironically enough, one of the most cohesive combinations of the two genres has recently arrived in the form of drummer Ben Perowsky’s Moodswing Orchestra.

The fact that Perowsky can shuttle freely and fluently between both domains is hardly surprising given his résumé, which on the jazz side includes work with John Zorn, the Lounge Lizards, Uri Caine, and John Scofield, and on the rock side includes Joan As Policewoman, Elysian Fields, and Ricki Lee Jones. Still other collaborations meet in the middle, including work with Walter Becker (of Steely Dan) and his old group Lost Tribe. After all, if anyone were to venture into sonic terrain where jazz and rock converge, it should be someone with Perowsky’s varied background.

But what qualifies his new album, Ben Perowsky Presents: Moodswing Orchestra, as such a left-field candidate for most-promising new genre bender is that it doesn’t actually sound like jazz or rock—at least not in obvious or easily definable ways. In fact, “ambient” is probably the first classification that makes sense, but this music seems to strain against categorization in the first place.

More accurately, it’s as if the music on Moodswing Orchestra oozes between the cracks of whatever reference points the listener brings to it. As a result, not only do conventional definitions of rock and jazz dissolve as the music unfolds, but labels as a whole — and the comforting sense of direction that they provide — break down in a dreamlike, highly inventive swirl of sound.

In an effort to improvise from a place that “wasn’t coming from a jazz language,” Perowsky issued a simple instruction to his collaborators: “less Herbie, more Eno.”

Much of Moodswing Orchestra’s texture derives from Perowsky’s post-production manipulation (edits, effects treatments, etc.) of what originally began as a recorded archive of live improvisations. In 2002, the project’s nucleus — Perowsky, pianist Glenn Patscha, turntablist Markus Miller, and bassist Oren Bloedow of Elysian Fields — landed a weekly residency at the now-shuttered Brooklyn club North Six, where they frequently let loose with a rotating cast of special guests. In an effort to improvise from a place that “wasn’t coming from a jazz language,” Perowsky issued a simple instruction to his collaborators: “less Herbie, more Eno.”

“I told them that [directive] after the first set of the first night,” he explains. “Glenn can pay anything. He’s a total virtuoso. And we all know we can do that — not that we can play like Herbie Hancock — but I didn’t want to push it in that direction.”

Interestingly enough, Perowsky took the inverse approach on his new Ben Perowsky Quartet album, entitled Esopus Opus. The quartet features progressive-jazz heavyweights Drew Gress, Chris Speed, and Ted Reichman improvising, at Perowsky’s direction, like a garage band. Yet the drummer still sees a clear delineation between Opus and Moodswing. The former, he insists, falls more squarely in jazz territory. (Other listeners may not be so ready to call Opus jazz—or call it any one thing.)

To better understand Perowsky’s vision, it helps to know that he is the son of saxophonist Frank Perowsky — a jazz veteran who has played with Woody Herman, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstine, and Stan Getz — and that his first love was classic rock.

“Jazz,” Perowsky recalls, “was on all the time at home. It’s not that I necessarily was rebelling against it. It just wasn’t the first music I went for. That wasn’t my music; it was my parents’ music. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to open my ears to it.”

But even after a brief teenage spell of eschewing rock to immerse himself exclusively in bebop and postbop, Perowsky returned to his first love — but with a broadened sense of how to approach it. Meanwhile, hip hop had already seeped into the picture before he’d even begun playing drums, thanks to his older brother’s interest in graffiti and comic books.

Born in New York City in 1966, Perowsky falls perfectly within the age group that absorbed rap and graffiti culture when it was a new, cutting-edge aesthetic percolating in the air. Looking back at the ground he’s covered as a listener, his versatility as a player and natural instinct to bend boundaries makes perfect sense.

“I still feel like classic rock is my roots,” he explains. “I still enjoy music that’s coming out of that mode as a jumping-off point. It feels like home, like a place to come back to and then go away from. I never stopped enjoying rock and roll or soul music or funk.

I just then had this whole other jazz thing. But I was always letting it all in.” Given his adeptness at creating seamless new fusions, Perowsky’s tendency to keep the two forms separate in his head is somewhat puzzling. He explains that much of his need to do that arises from having to be aware of the business side of playing music.

“It’s not necessarily a bad conflict,” he says of mediating business and art. But he also concedes that, for him, the conflict doesn’t revolve around marketing alone, and that there is some internal push-pull going on within his own thinking.

Although Perowsky gravitates to open-minded musicians — Joan Wasser (a.k.a. Joan as Policewoman), for example, is nothing if not a textbook example of an artist who employs heavy jazz elements in a pop/songwriter context to sublime effect — he is aware that some players just aren’t conscious of music being made outside of their own idioms.

“Dialogue” would perhaps be the best term for how Perowsky has always seen the relationship between rock and jazz. After all, he describes landmark jazz albums such as Sonny RollinsNight at the Village

Vanguard and Thelonious Monk’s first trio albums with drummer Art Blakey as having a “raw, gutteral, punk-rock essence.”

“My favorite jazz records are not really safe,” he adds. Centered (somewhat) on the core group of Perowsky, Patscha, Miller, and Bloedow, Moodswing Orchestra also is peppered with numerous guest appearances, most conspicuously from the likes of Wasser, Bebel Gilberto, Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto, and Jennifer Charles, also of Elysian Fields.

Unsurprisingly, vocalists like Wasser, Charles, and Gilberto bring a sultry elegance to their vocals as the music slinks toward — and past — the abstract edges of what we might consider to be surrealist lounge. Woodwinds, drifts of keyboard mist, bleeps, bells, whistles, and the sound of crackling vinyl exude from a dense soundscape that positively drips with atmosphere, with an overall effect that’s like listening to a warped variation of jazz from within a vibrant, eerie, and disorienting dream.

Meanwhile, a kind of harmonic humidity hangs over the music and even weighs it down; for most of the tunes, it’s as if Perowsky and company have bent pitches into a space where major and minor no longer apply. There certainly is a pervasive mood here, and sure enough, it does swing, but there is no easy way to figure out what that mood is supposed to be.

This ambiguous quality works in the album’s favor, not only because it coats the music in a sheen of freshness, but also because the musicians maintain their poise while conveying its various shades and subtleties. By turns, the music feels unmistakably but not quite languid, melancholy, relaxing, dissonant, ethereal, sensual, fanciful, etc. Ultimately, the album comes across as more engaging than threatening as all of these disparate sensations gel into a fluid ninetrack sequence.

Again, Perowsky does acknowledge a tension between these various styles of music. Perhaps, at the end of the day, it is this tension that, strangely enough, enables divergent musical traditions to coexist so smoothly in Perowsky’s work. When family members live under the same roof, he points out, tension is an inescapable but vital bonding agent that often underpins the harmony between them.

Likewise, Perowsky and his cast of players are able to wring an uneasy, appropriately messy, but nonetheless jovial coexistence between jazz, rock, and their assorted offspring. But aside from any artistic insight that Perowsky might be able to shed on these matters, a more telling truth emerges when he laughs nervously while thinking about his father’s upcoming (as of press time) 75th-birthday celebration.

“I have a gig with Moodswing Orchestra on that day,” Perowsky chuckles. “So he’s like, ‘All right, I’m going to come down and have my party there.’ It should be an interesting mix of age groups.”

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