Jacob Duncan, sax
Craig Wagner, guitar
Chris Fortner, trombone
Chris Fitzgerald, bass
Michael Hyman, drums
Kris Eans, trumpet
Steve Good, tenor and bass clarinet
Carly Johnson, vocals
“It began in a real free-spirited kind of way, so it was about the idea that we were going to free ourselves, and that was the prophecy,” Jacob Duncan says with a laugh. “Free ourselves through making music, you know?” Liberation Prophecy’s leader, composer, arranger and alto saxophonist, Duncan has been doing exactly that since 1995, when the band’s inaugural incarnation surfaced as a quartet in the back room of a coffee house in his native Louisville, Kentucky. Since those experimental salad days, Duncan has taken the Liberation Prophecy mission with him around the country, assembling like-minded musicians in Denton, Texas and New York City. Now back home in Louisville, Duncan’s current Liberation Prophecy is a facile, empathic octet that brings his compositions to life with a proprietary blend of precision, intuition, without-a-net-high-wire-daring, and inspired avant-anarchy. Now two albums into its questing, Liberation Prophecy continues to astonish.
At the time of its first release, 2006’s Last Exit Angel, Liberation Prophecy felt the influence of early Carla Bley, Coltrane, Mingus, Coleman, Zappa, Sun Ra and songwriters Randy Newman and Tom Waits. That heady mélange of inspirations manifested in a debut of remarkable maturity, adventure, and promise. “With the first album there were more traditional elements of jazz, and samba and avant-garde,” Duncan says. “But with the new one, Invisible House (2012), there’s more rock, and I think it’s more present—simple and present. These are actually just songs…they’re stories, and they’re colors and melodies that you could actually remember. That’s the idea—something that’s listenable, but at the same time collaborative and eclectic.” Those collaborations, three songs with lyric contributions from Will Oldham (“Let’s Not Pretend”), Greta Smith (“Wish I May”), and Joe Manning (“The Lazy Mist”) are unequivocal successes, and signal Duncan’s continuing growth as an artist.
“You can hold music too tight, and I realized I needed to let go a little and not hold it so close to my chest,” Duncan admits. “So I got together with three songwriters who I respect as part of that letting-go process…it was beautiful and fascinating.” Although Carla Bley still ranks high on his list of influences, with Invisible House Duncan acknowledges the inspiration of Tin Pan Alley song smiths and even the Rolling Stones. Imminently listenable and inviting, yet never less than adventurous, the album marks anew direction for Liberation Prophecy: more song-oriented, personal, and accessible.
Guitarist Craig Wagner and trombonist Chris Fortner are both band veterans, and they’re joined by bassist Chris Fitzgerald, drummer Michael Hyman, trumpeter Kris Eans and Steve Good on tenor and bass clarinet. They’re all incontestable heavyweights, bringing experience, virtuosity and smarts to the feast. And new singer Carly Johnson is a revelation—versatile, tuneful, and with an emotional range that floats from first-person intimate to brassy belting with the greatest of ease.
Leader Jacob Duncan’s musical path has been a fascinating one, consistently balancing a spiritual, intuitive inclination with a keen, educated intelligence; his ensemble playing is as assured and sympathetic as his soloing is risking and rewarding. Beginning on the alto sax at the age of eleven, he soon distinguished himself as the kid who could play. He graduated from the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy, played lead alto in the Yamaha Big Band while in high school, and won a music scholarship to the University of North Texas in Denton, where he was a member of the world-renowned One O’Clock Lab Band. After graduation, Duncan flew to Lisbon on a one-way ticket with alto in tow, five hundred dollars, and very little else. Playing on street corners, French jazz clubs, hanging with musicians, hitchhiking and enjoying a peripatetic existence based on the proverbial“kindness of strangers,” he survived and thrived in Europe for eight months.
On returning to the States, the siren call of New York got the better of him and he settled there for a time; a day gig at a coffee house kept him afloat while he played countless sessions, gigged endlessly at Nimrod’s and the Knitting Factory, and reassembled Liberation Prophecy as a sextet. Eventually frustrated by stress, rehearsal conflicts,original Liberation singer Norah Jones’ departure to major label pastures, and a steady diet of Ramen noodles, a cruise ship tour of duty paved his escape from New York. The lure of dry land finally brought Duncan back to Louisville, where he re-devoted his musical energies to a new edition of Liberation Prophecy. Marriage, fatherhood, and divorce also figured in the picture, and those experiences all inform much of Invisible House’s moorings and maturity.
Album highlights are plentiful, but a brief checklist would have to include the infectious rhythmic insistence of “You,” an ensemble tour-de-force. Here singer Carly Johnson’s timbre recalls both Peggy Lee and Miss Nancy Wilson, icing the cake with stylish,worldly panache. “The Lazy Mist” thins the texture down to acoustic guitar, bass, vocal and Duncan’s impassioned saxophone—it’s an elegiac musical haiku, elegantly impressionistic. Craig Wagner’s fiery guitar solo in “Fortress” seems to fuse Bill Frissell, Marc Ribot and Clarence White into a jolting shard of a statement—a brilliant color that electrifies that song’s existential tone and setting. And the list goes on and on.
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