I’ll give you a glimpse behind the curtain of the Vinyl Anachronist operation: I get music from jazz labels, and I get music from indie rock labels. The two worlds rarely collide. When I received Gregg Belisle-Chi’s Book of Hours in the mail, I wasn’t sure which world was being represented. Gregg Belisle-Chi, a guitarist based in Brooklyn, has a sound on Book of Hours that sort of bridges the gap but in a way that leans heavily toward indie rock with its heavy doses of electric guitar and a quartet that includes bassist Matt Aronoff, drummer Michael W. Davis and Wurlitzer organ player Dov Manski. It’s a stripped-down rock outfit, albeit an instrumental one, and not once did I think “oh, this is jazz.”
Gregg Belisle-Chi has played with Bill Frisell, and perhaps that’s the key. Frisell has always straddled that fence, sometimes jumping down on either side and running around for a bit before hopping back up. Belisle-Chi is obviously influenced by this aesthetic, making music that fits in between genres, hopefully squeezing into a nice little vacant lot of his own–at least with Book of Hours. In the past, Belisle-Chi has done a lot of different things. His first album, Tenebrae, was composed for guitar and voice, and the follow-up, I Sang to You and the Moon, featured guitar, voice, bass and trumpet. Book of Hours was originally conceived as an album for a nine-piece jazz/chamber ensemble. I’m not going to second-guess Belisle-Chi’s choices here, but something tells me that version might not have been so original, and so unexpected.
Book of Hours is organized as an eight-part suite is “based on the text and the history of the Mass Ordinary,” which refers to a mass that is performed at times where the actual occasion is not important. (I’m not Catholic so yes, I had to Wiki that.) That concept seems very distant from the execution since so much of this sounds like a tight rock quartet jamming away, improvising here and there. The individual movement are labeled correctly–kyrie, gloria, credo, sanctus, etc.–and that’s when you start to feel the recurring themes that you might experience in a mass. Each movement reflects the spirit and the mood of each of those traditional parts, something that must seem even more obvious to those who are more knowledgeable about Catholic masses than this godless heathen.
Fortunately, Gregg Belisle-Chi’s Book of Hours doesn’t require you to convert to understand. Taken at face value, this is a stunning album of jazz-rock that’s never boring, even in its most reflective moments. As with Frisell, Gregg Belisle-Chi is a musician who can extract a maximum amount of emotion from a minimum of flashy technique. Manski’s Wurlitzer is a vital contributor, bringing along a lot of the mystery we feel from the sacred part of masses, that feeling where we are surrounded by spirits and ghosts and things we will never understand. Book of Hours adds up to that divine sense of uniqueness, of something that presents no easy answers but a multitude of excellent questions.
Images courtesy of greggbelislechi.com.