Chris Weller and his band wear hearts on sleeve

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Eric Novak

 

It’s not often that an innovative record comes out that stars a blood-related relative. In the case of the new jazz record eponymously titled Chris Weller’s Hanging Hearts, my cousin Cole DeGenova plays keyboards in a trio comprised of sax, keyboards and drums. This instrumentation stands out in the jazz world chiefly because there’s no bass— a common anchor in the history of jazz. DeGenova, playing the Fender Rhodes electric piano, often takes the bass duties in addition to providing angular stabs of sound in the treble frequencies.

This group, led by saxophonist Chris Weller, is made up of all Berklee College of Music graduates. The group itself is rooted strongly in the techniques of free improvisation and rock, as well as jazz. Often, in live shows, they deviate heavily from the written material and forge completely new and spontaneous musical paths. This concept of free improvisation is not a new concept, although the Hanging Hearts approach improvisation in a very fresh and unique way, playing off the strengths of each other in a kind of musical conversation.

These conversations make the album very unique and consistently engaging. The interaction between drummer Devin Drobka’s ferocious set playing and DeGenova’s sharp, accented keyboard playing underneath Weller’s groovy sax melody is exciting, as they don’t simply provide a static accompaniment to the main melody; they are a living, breathing musical unit.

Throughout the album, improvisation shines as a crucial element to their music. There are moments on the album where they suddenly take the groove in the music and completely destroy it, resulting in some glorious cacophony between the three musicians. Moments like these are found fairly frequently on the album, and it is not an album that should be approached as background music because of all the subtle intricacies that are heard from the group’s interaction.

On “D Rover,” DeGenova deconstructs the beat and Drobka falls into sync almost perfectly with his stuttering beats. These moments give the album a very human aspect to it because one can hear how the musicians talk to each other and figure out how to cross sonic landscapes that haven’t been mapped out yet.

Perhaps one of the strangest tracks on an album, full of raw, energetic jazz, is the second track and only cover, Duke Ellington’s “The Single Petal Of A Rose.” In sharp contrast to the first track, this song has an ethereal tranquility about it. Drobka lays out completely and allows it to be a duet between the saxophone and the Fender Rhodes.

DeGenova lays out harmonically rich chords that seem to float and fade away, while Weller shows that he has a tender side in addition to all the fiery playing that is heard throughout the record. While this song offers a brief, calming respite after the chaotic “D Rover,” it seems to come too soon in a record dominated by fierce and inventive playing.

Besides the placement of the track, there is not much I have to complain about. The album is only 38 minutes long, and while its brevity keeps me wanting more, it does not hamper listening. From DeGenova’s explosive solo on “D Rover” to the playful melodies on “Early Bird” and “Confucius Says,” this album offers consistently interesting instrumental textures and group interaction that warrant countless revisits and rewards new discoveries every listen.