Theo Czuk – The Black Bottom
Theo Czuk’s The Black Bottom is a twelve song turn through the multiple faces jazz music has worn over the last century and he makes it sing and play as far more than some virtuosic academic exercise. Instead, these songs live with both pathos and humor with neither quality coming across as forced. Czuk has recruited a first class cadre of musicians to help realize his ambitions for this album and they remain a consistent presence through the collection’s twelve cuts. The Black Bottom could have conceivably come off as a staid, uninspired effort if he had pursued excessively studied results but, instead, it brims over and percolates with a level of freshness that few releases in popular music over 2017 could hope to match. We’re fortunate, as listeners, to experience a musical outing like this – surely no major label way back when or now would entertain the dim commercial prospects for such a release – and many, if not all, listeners will finish even a single spin through the songs feeling like a plant that’s been watered.
The process of feeling that way begins with the first track. “The Black Bottom” kicks things off with a powerful, intensely melodic instrumental that never meanders and stays on point thanks to instantly unforgettable parts like the bass riff Czuk builds everything around. “Cold Corridor” has many of the same strengths we hear in the title song, but it differs because it’s the album’s first song with vocals and has more of a traditional full band sound. The Black Bottom features five instrumentals in all and the other peak for that type of song comes with the songs “Mi Casa Bossa” and “Midnight ‘Round”. The former shows off Czuk’s penchant for challenging tempos while the latter exploits a bluesier side of the spectrum he hasn’t traveled through until now. There’s never any sense of showing off with the former, however, though the sparkle in the band’s playing clearly shows the joy they take in dispatching a crisp, inspired performance.
“Lunch Wagon on Highway 57” and “Wooden Nickels” is two diametrically opposed tunes that work quite well paired back to back with one another. The first track brings a literary text from an outside source, a poem by famed author Kenneth Patchen, and brings it together with an expertly constructed bit of “Beat jazz” with a memorable musical touch that never risks pretension. The three bluer moments on The Black Bottom are the aforementioned “Midnight ‘Round”, “Pi to the Nth Degree”, and the conclusion “Closing Time” – “Pi to the Nth Degree” has a much more luxuriant musical texture than the other tracks while “Closing Time” goes in a completely different direction with a 3am in the morning mid-tempo crawl that embodies that woozy time when the day’s final curtain is falling. It’s a fantastic ending for the album and matches up rather nicely with the opener’s feel. It’s obvious that a great deal of care has been exercised to shape The Black Bottom in the way Czuk wants it to come across. He’s successful in every respect.