The Matt Skellenger Group sounds like no other jazz ensemble I’ve heard, and for a couple of reasons. First, the choice of instruments here is truly novel, which gives this music an otherworldly feel that’s truly exhilarating. Bassist Skellenger is obviously the leader, and his bass lives in the upper registers and guides the melodies of these compositions like Peter Hook used to do with New Order. His cohorts in the rhythm section are also exotic in their approach–drummer Dave Miller is fast and athletic, while fellow percussionist Andy Skellenger uses such distinctive instruments such as the tabla and the cajon to provide a slappy texture that’s rich in handwork.
That’s not the only element that makes the Matt Skellenger Group and their new album, Vitality, so refreshingly odd. The other members of the group add even more intrigue–Glenn Taylor‘s pedal steel guitar dislodges the genre-bound qualities of his instrument to straddle the world between country-rock and world music, and horn players Adam Bartczak and Matt Reid sound like they’re on hiatus from Hugh Masakela’s later works. Add such unusual sounds from the conch shell, ghatam and udu and you have a recipe for an enthralling turn on modern jazz tropes, a strict adherence to jazz composition that takes concentration from the listener to realize that yes, this is still totally jazz.
I want to circle back on one element of the Matt Skellenger Group sound–the cajon. I was just introduced to the joy of the cajon when I traveled to Honolulu this spring and met a friend of a friend who plays this simple instrument. A cajon, if you don’t know, is little more than a wooden box enclosure that has been designed to sound deep and rich, like a bass drum played with your fingers. A snare is often attached to the inside of the cajon to bring variety to the number of sounds you can extract from it. You can buy a decent cajon for less than a hundred bucks, and I’m tempted to do so.
The second reason the Matt Skellenger Group is so, well, vital is that these six guys play their butts off with an energy that’s rare in this genre. They play fast, they play together, and they’re deep into the groove. Skellenger, who is based in Denver, has composed and arranged these nine original tracks to suit the unique ensemble and bring out the unusual sounds in a way that’s never gimmicky. If you’re one of those music lovers who feels that a lot of jazz sounds the same, I beg you to check out Vitality. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard an album title this apt.