At first glance, one might suspect a jazz quintet like Peter Lamb and The Wolves—well-dressed men playing superficially familiar jazz in low-lit Triangle haunts—of aiming for a nostalgia niche.
But listen closely: These new arrangements of swing, blues and jazz from the 1920s to the 1960s are anything but museum pieces. And, as the Wolves put it, they tote a "bizarro" repertoire—T. Rex and Tom Waits sit alongside Russian folk songs and video game music. The Wolves' appeal outstrips considerations of genre, or generation.
"We have people from the North Carolina Symphony come and watch us. People who are 80 come and watch us, and people who are 2. I think because it's experimental and fun," says leader and saxophonist Lamb.
Al Strong, the combo's trumpet player, echoes Lamb: "This is the direction that jazz is going now, where it's fused with many different styles, all at once. It's like jazz mixed with country, rock, old school R&B, some Latin tinge, some New Orleans—it's a tinge of many things."
Lamb formed the band for a one-time celebration—an inauguration party for Barack Obama at Humble Pie in Raleigh. They played "Hail to the Chief" after his speech and simply kept going. They've stayed on Humble Pie's calendar ever since, with a standing gig every other Wednesday, steadily expanding the way they sound as group members and as a unit.
Since those beginnings, the edgy, no-boundaries quintet has grown musically in an upward spiral. They released their self-titled debut, a live recording from Marsh Woodwinds in August 2010, earlier this year to critical acclaim. To capture that kinetic show in lush detail, recording engineer and producer Dave Tilley brought in some of his favorite vintage ribbon and vacuum-tube mics.
"Pete plays tenor like a giant possessed Muppet, weaving and bobbing all over the stage, so a lot of adjustments had to be made, even in the middle of the live performance," Tilley recalls. "But honestly, the hardest part of the recording was not dancing when I needed to be keeping an eye on mic levels."
For Peter, it was all about a raw, in-the-moment atmosphere. "I like an organic sound," he says. "Dave does too, so we kind of met there," recalls Lamb. Of the 21 songs played that night, 11 made it onto the album. Each was recorded in one take. "I wanted there to be wrong notes. I wanted there to be things out of tune. I wanted it to sound like it was real, and born of this earth, and not spun in some lab."
Lamb tries his hand at arranging for the first time with the Wolves' songbook, too, putting his own spin on every tune but Ray Charles' "Mary Anne." Lamb's risk taking—like pushing a well-worn standard out onto a drafty window ledge in its underwear—pays dividends.
"I like stuff that sounds scary, like it could fall apart," he says. "When you think, 'I hope they're going to make it,' you know. Like Charles Mingus' stuff, his arrangements are rough but exciting. That's the direction we're going."
The Wolves' "Mona Lisa" is a case in point: Sans sap, it launches with a lone, vamping counter-rhythm on Lamb's saxophone. Piano, drums and bass gently lope in alongside, leaving an open path for Strong's flugelhorn to nudge the melody forward. The Wolves' version is a complete reinvention, making you fall in love where you least expect it.
Indeed, their main aim seems to be busting expectations, especially of how a quintet can get so much sound and variety. George Knott, for instance, multitasks on upright double bass and elephantine bass saxophone—both mounted on stands in close proximity so he can bounce between instruments, changing timbre within seconds. Pianist and vocalist Mark Wells also does double duty. Older blues and soul, which might sound recycled in less skilled hands, come as naturally to Wells as breathing.
"I think it just comes from what's moved me in my life," he says. Both of his parents were singers, and his grandfather sang opera. "My mom and dad always played gospel music when I was a kid. We go to a Baptist church. I was exposed to a lot of good music early."
Finding more ways to get sound out of his instrument, Strong alternates between the deeper, softer-toned flugelhorn and a regular trumpet with two different types of mutes—Harmon or plunger.
"It's like a whole different instrument when you put that plunger up there. It's no longer a trumpet. It can be a whole lot of other things too. It makes it talk. That was the sound that Duke [Ellington] was going for, to get as close to the human voice as possible," says Strong. The Harmon mute gets closer to Miles Davis' sound. But mostly, Lamb prizes Strong's ability to sound like his own man: "Al has a voice. You hear him solo, and you know that's Al Strong." It's the same standard to which Lamb holds his own playing.
"There's a lot of people that sound like Dexter Gordon, or Charlie Parker, or Sonny Rollins, but they don't sound like themselves. I went to college for music, you know, so I can sound like Sonny Rollins if I want to, but I'm sick of sounding like someone else," he says. "Whatever I hear in my head, I want it to come out."
By being able to fit into the Wolves' kaleidoscopically shifting context, with a tango rhythm, a New Orleans backbeat or the right atmospherics, drummer Stephen Coffman lends color and shape to the sound. For Coffman, it's less about being the drummer, more about being in a band.
Opines Lamb, "With a quintet, you have a shape to your band, to your sound. Think of Miles Davis' group, with Cannonball and Coltrane, each over there doing their own thing but together, it's like this sound. This band kind of has that."
That sound? Future-oriented jazz, with an analog sensibility.