MR. CHAIR – Better Days
You can purchase the debut album Nebulebula here.
Better Days was available as a first pressing, limited edition of 150 copies at their pre-release event at the Bur Oak on October 21st. The official release is in 2023.
The stage was set at the Bur Oak on October 21st. Two trombones were perched on their stands. “Okay,” I thought, “one for each band then.” The opener was Darren Sterud whose band is known as Gate Check. Their opening set was quite enjoyable. Sterud has become a good band leader and the group (Chris Rottmayer-Keyboards/Piano; Ben Ferris-Bass/Pedals and Matthew Endres-Drums) was tight and lively. I was proven wrong about the trombones however when Cole Bartels joined them and some beautiful trombone duets ensued. Their set featured music from their latest release Places.
Then Mr. Chair took the stage and holy mother of God, what an impressive performance. If Mark Hetzler is not the most talented performer in the city than the rest of the band is. There is probably a tendency to equate trombone with a New Orleans style of ensemble or even big band; not thought of as a lead instrument, ordinarily. Madison seems blessed, however, to have several great trombonists but Hetzler is a different breed. The dude is his instrument. His use of long-decaying reverbs, harmonizers and delays is hypnotizing as is his stage demeanor, hurling himself into his playing. Mr. Chair reminds me of the Pat Metheny Group and not just because Jason Kutz reminds me of Lyle Mays, certainly one of the greatest keyboardists ever, but the consolidation of Mays’ artistry with Metheny’s made the group tick and this is also the case with Mr. Chair. Kutz plays lots of piano but also synths and his use of the pitch-bend also bears comparison to Mays as well as the sense that the guy could play anything thrown at him. Also like the PMG, it takes a dynamic and fluid rhythm section to make the whole thing tick. Ben Ferris (performing double duty at this show) – I don’t know what adjectives to write here. It’s clear he loves to play but his attention to the proceedings is phenomenal. His eyes flit back and forth across the stage, totally able to synch up with the rest of the ensemble and always playing the exact right thing. The same is true for Mike Koszewski on drums – a joy to watch. Ferris also employs sound effects and this combination, along with Hetzlers’s produces a canopy of sound that envelopes the band; so while the delays are still decaying the players have already introduced new melodic lines. It’s fascinating. Since the last time I saw Mr. Chair they’ve added a guitarist, Jose Guzman. This brings an added dimension to the group. It did feel like they were still incorporating this element to some degree but he was capable and should bring a lot more to the compositional side of things as Mr. Chair continues its journey.
This is a group that needs to be seen to fully appreciate. The energy level is different in live performance and watching them play these complicated works is a fulfilling experience. The effects on the trombone are much more evident in a music hall. Credit should be given to whoever was engineering the sound at the Bur Oak as it was excellent.
Better Days kicks off with “March,” a Jason Kutz composition that sees a two-note statement run through several rhythmic and accompaniment variations, building up to a climax at the six-minute mark and then taking another two-and-a-half minutes to wind back down. It’s a fully-formed piece of music, not just a framework for improvisational ‘round-the-horns. This carries over into the rest of the album making it a bit less experimental than their ambitious debut Nebulebula; more meditative and less focused on the spacey sounds that the employment of the effects provides, particularly when played live. That’s not to say there aren’t effects being employed, just fewer of the overarching long decays, etc. The title track, written by Hetzler, is another example of this approach, a focus on the melodic structure rather than the “sound” with remarkable pitch-bending piano soloing from Kutz extended further by an equally humanizing synth solo.
“Fuschia” is another Kutz composition and an installment in what he calls “songs based on colors.” Like “Blue” on Nebulebula, Buzz Kemper makes another spoken-word contribution that is effectively playful and beguiling. This is a splendid feature of the group’s live performance. A beautiful keyboard introduction gives way to ghostly trombone that builds tension. The music succeeds in interpreting the color as both soft and harsh, rather undefined. Kemper’s words fortify this. A blazing chorus kicks in; a pointy, distorted guitar/trombone riff screaming color. Kemper’s rhythmic use of wordplay over a cascading middle section is brilliant.
“Fuschia” gets a reprise (sans spoken word) on one of two tracks to feature guest saxophonist Eddie Barbash, a core member of Jon Batiste and Stay Human. Guzman also gets a chance to solo on this take. This version also doubles up on the tempo for the second sax improv and the final chorus. “Elegy” was contributed by Ben Ferris in memory of his grandfather. Poignant bowed bass gives way to Barbash’s sax and a lovely sax/trombone duet.
The album’s centerpiece is the two adjoining pieces from Hetzler. “Abandoned Cities,” is heavy, evoking the bleakness that the title suggests. Ferris’s bowed bass gives way to a doubled piano/guitar section while Hetzler’s trombone hovers menacingly. It’s a slow build to Koszewski’s entry and then a trail-off which segues into “Appellation Spring.” It’s admirable how the melodic statements are shifted from instrument to instrument so seamlessly, another of Mr. Chair’s striking traits. Now the music shifts to a rhythmic complexity that showcases Hetzler’s ability to play at a high rate of speed while doubling with the other instruments, particularly the keys. This builds to ferocity before an abrupt ending.
Kutz’s “Britten’s Written Rhythm” evolves from another contemplative intro into a samba-like rhythm pattern with subtle deviations and variations. The instruments are played in a straightforward manner with little to no processing. The title is likely a reference to prominent 20th-century British composer Benjamin Britten and his incorporation of Balinese gamelan music.
The album closes with “Uncanny Valley,” a contribution from drummer Mike Koszewski. The piano leads it off in a folk-ish quality. Each member shines and the development is highly reminiscent of the Pat Metheny Group, especially Guzman’s guitar, which features prominently. Then – finally – we get a good taste of that tremendous envelope-pushing trombone, distorted and heavily effected. Sublime. Just when you think it’s over, it morphs into a completely different section. At nearly ten minutes it’s a triumphant amalgam of everything Mr. Chair is and is ultimately the best track on the album.
My experiences seeing Mr. Chair live have been some of the most fulfilling performances that I have seen in Madison. I would rank their Bur Oak show as one of the best shows I’ve seen – ever. Better Days is a satisfying album with top-notch musicianship and writing. Here’s hoping they can manage to capture a little more of that lightning-in-a-bottle live essence on an album. In the end this is a highly recommended outing from one of Madison’s best ensembles – in any genre.