Mr. Chair | Better Days Review
The Auditory Odyssey of Better Days: Mr. Chair’s Fusion Journey
by Illiam Sebitz
In the fusion music sphere, genres cross-pollinate to create innovative auditory landscapes that surpass boundaries to evolve to create fresh and authentic sounds. Mr. Chair stands as a venerable custodian of this artistic alchemy. With their roots firmly planted in Madison, Wisconsin, the ensemble has previously demonstrated their veritable mastery over a potpourri of styles, ranging from jazz to classical to prog rock. Their most recent outing, an album poetically christened Better Days, is a monumental chapter in the band’s eclectic saga and a vital contribution to the resurging fusion genre.
Upon superficial scrutiny, Mr. Chair may masquerade as a mere jazz quintet; however, their musical lexicon extends far beyond that singular idiom. Comprising Ben Ferris on bass, José Guzmán wielding the guitar, Mark Hetzler resonating through the trombone, Mike Koszewski setting rhythmic cadences on the drums, and Jason Kutz manipulating a kaleidoscope of colors on the keyboards, this ensemble is a polyglot of auditory expression. In this intricate yet cohesive interplay, Mr. Chair crafts its distinctive, authentic fusion sound—drawing listeners into a sonic labyrinth where every pathway leads to novel and uncharted auditory discoveries.
As an analytical starting point, it is critical to explore how Better Days stacks upon the existing foundation laid by their 2019 release Nebulebula. The current album manifests as an aesthetic and philosophical continuation, further refining the group’s distinctive interaction and instrumentation. Where Nebulebula was a sprawling epic, with even a gospel choir adding to its broad sounds, Better Days concentrates its energy into nine intensely focused tracks. The album takes the listener on a Homeric odyssey of sonic variety yet adheres to a cohesive artistic vision, a rare feat that maintains and enriches the ensemble’s established ethos.
Special mention must be made of the seamless incorporation of guest musicians, notably Eddie Barbash and Buzz Kemper. Barbash’s alto saxophone is no mere ancillary; it weaves effortlessly into Mr. Chair’s complex acoustic framework, introducing harmonic dissonances that are as surprising as they are satisfying. Meanwhile, Buzz Kemper’s spoken word, redolent of modernist poetry, functions as the Sibylline oracle in this multi-layered aural amphitheater.
Opening the album is “March” by Kutz, a sonic collage that exemplifies Mr. Chair’s genre-defying approach. His keyboards create a kaleidoscopic color palette, providing a fertile ground upon which each instrumentalist constructs their unique voice. The track sets a high bar, flourishing in classical nuances while keeping the rhythm section rooted in the jazz idiom.
The second track is another Kutz composition, “Fuchsia,” featuring Buzz Kemper’s spoken word as its centerpiece. Enveloped by hip-hop meets rock-fusion beats from drummer Koszewski and a looping bassline from Ferris, Kemper’s words become a sort of mantra, a contemporary oracular voice, guiding listeners through a maze of polyphonic textures. Including spoken word creates a flow that’s cerebral yet soulfully resonant in its poetic meanings and delivery.
In “Better Days,” penned by Hetzler, the ensemble deftly weaves elements of funk into their already intricate musical fabric. This demonstrates their artistic craftsmanship and unparalleled stylistic versatility. The performance maintains an engaging sense of dynamic fluidity amidst its complexities. Hetzler’s trombone work is especially striking in this composition; it oscillates between scripted eloquence and spontaneous improvisation, epitomizing Mr. Chair’s unique finesse in balancing the notated and the extemporaneous.
In Ferris’ “Elegy,” guest saxophonist Eddie Barbash becomes one with Mr. Chair. His saxophone melody and solo effortlessly interact with the rich ensemble, showing a collective face that is replete with various shades of emotion. Barbash introduces an ineffable sense of playfulness, which makes this track a soul-stirring experience.
The next track is like a landscape painting in musical form, where every instrumental layer adds a different hue to the overall picture. Starting with a simple theme, Hetzler’s “Abandoned Cities” unravels through evolutions and stylistic shifts, with Ferris’ articulate bowing and Guzmán’s sustained guitar adding layers of intricacy and sonic charm.
Seamlessly flowing from the poignant finale of “Abandoned Cities,” Hetzler’s “Appellation Spring” bursts forth as a verdant activity of rhythmic and textural innovations. This composition is a journey, evolving from simplicity to complexity, much like the natural world it seems to evoke. The piece flows with dancing counterpoint and layered textures, cleverly developing its thematic undercurrent of flowing water through varied timbral activities. Reaching an awe-inspiring climax, one cannot help but marvel at the aural richness these five musicians can conjure to achieve this pinnacle moment.
Kutz’s enthralling composition of “Britten’s Written Rhythm” stands out for its narrative structure. A fusion of classical, world, and jazz elements, the track unfolds like a gripping novella—each musical phrase a sentence, each section a chapter, drawing listeners ever deeper into its intricate, unfolding storyline.
The second rendition of “Fuchsia” marks a clever instance of thematic recapitulation adorned with a fresh feel and sonics. Barbash’s alto saxophone contrasts the spoken word of the first version, showcasing Mr. Chair’s ability to revisit themes with refreshing perspectives, always keeping the listener on their toes.
The album closes with Koszewski’s “Uncanny Valley,” a rousing crescendo that amalgamates elements of third-stream jazz and rock fusion. This final statement leaves the listener at the edge of their seat, affirming that Mr. Chair’s journey through Better Days challenges, delights, and ultimately transcends musical boundaries.
The nine tracks that comprise Better Days serve as a lexicon of Mr. Chair’s multifaceted musical vocabulary. They carry the listener through a labyrinthine journey—a modern-day Homeric odyssey—that celebrates the beauty of fusion while never losing sight of the ensemble’s roots and unique voice. With this release, Mr. Chair adds another remarkable chapter to their eclectic narrative and raises the bar for what fusion music can aspire to be.
Release Date: March 2, 2023
About the author
Born and raised in a picturesque European village, my fondness for music began during my formative years, when the charismatic tones of the recorder first filled the halls of my primary school. This early fascination escalated into my lifelong pursuit of embracing the melodious charm of the flute; I have even spent time refining my skills at a music conservatoire. As a seasoned music connoisseur, I find myself captivated by the multifaceted world of music. I enjoy writing music reviews to better enable me to explore genres as diverse as world, rock, jazz, classical, folk, and film music, each offering a unique auditory journey that enriches my life and intellect.
In my spare moments, you'll likely find me meticulously crafting my latest woodworking project, sharpening my skills with flute etudes, or inventing tales of fantasy through the art of creative writing. My eclectic interests and expertise harmonize to create a symphony of passion and curiosity that resonates within every aspect of my life as a music enthusiast.