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A good cover version of another’s composition entails more than pulling on the original costume and waving one’s arms. A faithful rendition can be a pleasing homage but what truly elevates an often pedestrian action to a ghostly collaboration is a healthy mix of respect and disregard for the original work. To inhabit a tune not of one’s own invention requires a lover’s touch that pushes as much as it pulls, a few scratches left behind so there’s no doubt someone has been there and gotten the job done and well. And there are lovely rosy fingerprints and happy bruising to the wild ride Tea Leaf Trio generates on 13 captured-in-one-night covers on Volume 1 [click on title to download for FREE, y’all!]
The trio is three-fifths of Tea Leaf Green distilled down to the (positively) nasty, distortion dappled bar band at the Restaurant at the End of The Universe. Trevor Garrod (electric piano, vocals), Cochrane McMillan (percussion) and Reed Mathis (bass, vocals) crackle with live wire energy as they singe and sizzle in heartfelt improvisation, tasting what Mathis calls “one of the sweetest fruits on the music tree.” Nothing is worried over too much, inspiration and instinct leading the way, the vocals both oddly beautiful and a nicely ragged, a bit woozy in pleasantly tipsy ways in spots, soaring and intertwining unexpectedly in others. The playing is engaged and active, busier than most TLG, anxious and a little off-kilter like Dylan and company on “Highway 61 Revisited,” the noisemakers implied in an atmosphere of edgy possibility, each member integral to the overall feel but free to try whatever pops into their noggin. It is the most playful studio set to ever emerge from gentlemen never short on playfulness.
As for the springboards the trio has chosen a revealing, nutty assortment that includes late period John Lennon (“Grow Old With Me”), Fred Neil (“Everybody’s Talkin’”), The Beatles (“Mother Nature’s Son”), four from improviser-arranger extraordinaire Bob Dylan (“Standing In The Doorway,” “Time Passes Slowly,” “Just Like A Woman” and “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”), Rufus Wainwright (“Out of the Game”), Bob Weir (“Mexicali Blues”), Simon & Garfunkel (“America”), David Bowie (“Star Man”), Jimi Hendrix (“Electric Ladyland”) and the traditional (“Peggy-O”). The mixture of well known classics and deep cuts creates a nice tension, and always expectations and memories of the originals are smartly warped in the trio’s schema. To pour over any individual track would be to rob the listener of an essential aspect of this exchange – his or her own interpretation. This album demands a reaction, each version here too bold and distinct to be ignored, but also sure to engender vastly different reactions from each person.
Volume 1 is a rock answer to John Coltrane’s Ballads, where vibrant improvisers swing on familiar strains, freed up by the material to weave and jab with easy grace and no little measure of fancy footwork. More simply, Volume 1 is an unexpected knockout filled with conversational excellence, sonic sparks, exhilarating but consciously unpolished musicianship and a record lover’s heart. One hopes we won’t be long in waiting for Volume 2.