-- Rob O'Connor

Lester Bowie Brass Fantasy
The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music

William Hooker
The Distance Between Us
(Knitting Factory)

Delightfully audacious in both concept and execution, the new albums by revered jazz avant-gardists Lester Bowie and William Hooker are just the kind of screwball longplayers that are anathema for tight-assed traditionalists such as Wynton Marsalis. And if that's not reason enough to overlook some of the flaws in each set (and it is), the disks are at least challenging and fun, full of unexpected twists and unchartered left turns, things you never hear in the stuffy work of contemporary mainstream bopsters.

On The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music, Bowie (an alumnus of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) turns his trumpet toward songs you're unlikely to find on any album in the jazz racks (unless someone else out there has covered the Spice Girls' "Two Become One"). Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People" becomes a raging, New Orleans-style stomp, with the nine-piece brass ensemble screeching atop thunderous percussion, and the whole band screaming in cacophonous glee. On "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" Bowie redeems the inherent goo and sap of Andrew Lloyd Webber's unctuous weeper by fiddling around with the melody, sometimes taking it slow and sweet, other times sending out a cluster of notes before jump-starting this Broadway bomb with a vaguely Latin groove that's both unexpected and perfectly irreverent.

Sadly not everything here works that well. The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Notorious Thugs" moves at a fetchingly creepy pace, but ultimately fails if only because guest vocalist Dean Bowman ain't no Big Poppa. Similarly, the takes here of "In the Still of the Night" and "The Birth of the Blues" aren't much better than the dozens of existing versions to be found in the annals of jazz history. Much better is Puccini's "Nessun Dorma," highlighted by some beautiful trombone work courtesy of Luis Bonilla. Oh, and that Spice Girls cover? Gorgeous.

Hooker's The Distance Between Us finds the oddball NYC drummer/poet/bandleader swinging from eerie percussion-laden moans ("The Gates") to a nice little piece of minimalist esoterica punctuated by the stunning piano work of Mark Hennen ("Pure Imagination"). There's also "Sensor Suite," a four-part, nearly 40-minute blast of white-noisy honking, pounding, and string-strangling that might be the best thing the always-interesting Hooker has ever committed to tape. The surprises here, though, are the guitar-soaked covers of Sonic Youth's "Because (Of You): Dimension 1" and "Because (Of You): Dimension 2," which bookend "Sensor Suite." With the two pieces clocking in at just under eighteen minutes, most of them dominated by the quasi-Patti Smith-isms of Gisburg (yep, just Gisburg), it goes without saying that they could've been pared down by about ten minutes. What keeps you interested, though, is the way Hooker controls the beat, driving the song as if the ghosts of Keith Moon and Al Jackson are giving him directions from the back seat.

Is it jazz? Sure, why not? Would it meet the approval of Wynton Marsalis and his white-bread fans at NPR? Hell no. I can't think of a better endorsement.

-- John Floyd

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