Last March, cellist Helen Gillet convened some of the most talented voices in creative music working in and around New Orleans today to record her Tephra Sound project. They arguably ended up making the perfect springtime record. With its buzz of vibrant energy, creative use of rhythm and bounty of quirky surprises, this is definitely music in bloom.
Technically, Tephra Sound is Gillet plus drummer Nikki Glaspie, Jessica Lurie on sax and flute and Brian Haas on piano. Here, the quartet’s already kinetic interactions get an extra spark courtesy of Rex Gregory on sousaphone, flute and melodica, Weedie Braimah on djembe and Annie Ellicott on vocals. Throw in effects, loops, a “vintage” ’90s toy and engineer Andrew “Goat” Gilchrist’s careful maintenance of the intimacy afforded by recording in someone’s home and the result feels more like an improvisational orchestra than a quartet plus special guests.
As the disc gets rolling, the first highlight comes in the form of “Valles Caldera,” which plays out more like a suite in some ways than the “Elden Suite,” comprised of three short tracks just over one minute each. The title is an apparent reference to a national park whose footprint was created by a volcanic eruption, which is in turn a nod to the group’s name (a volcanic eruption creates “fragmental material” called “tephra”). Using her “megamouth” toy, Gillet lays down an addictive, borderline EDM beat that serves as an unorthodox base for what becomes a gorgeous exercise in accessible, avant-garde sound. The band’s collective sense of rhythm propels the tune; if a horn line veers out into free jazz territory, that resolute toy beat lures it back in. After a mid-song vibe change, Gillet’s bowing adds a new layer of complexity to what’s happening before the instruments grow quiet, leaving only the beat sample to fade out.
Other tracks showcase a more chamber jazz–ready feel, like the hushed “Capulin,” while the explosive “Krakatoa” transforms from the serenity of Gillet’s cello loops to an intense catharsis of sound. “Piton de la Fournaise” brings the album to an extended finish with another would-be suite that seems to tell a story of energy building, rising and erupting into a wall of effects before simmering into an elegant, faded close.
With so many paths for the listener to follow, each spin of the disc opens up a new set of possibilities. It’s a feast of an album.