Jester, the new recording from bassist and composer Arthur Kell’s quartet, attempts to cultivate the social role of the artists often associated with wearing bells and funny outfits prior to decapitation at the jewel-stained order of a particularly sedate monarch in the Middle Ages.
To have Kell tell it, “the jesters became essential in society because they used any skill they had – physical, verbal, musical, and political – to educate and illuminate. Any artist or activist today can understand how speaking to the world with intelligence, humour and insight remains a vital role…Jesters come in all shapes and sizes and characters.”
Kell’s quartet includes Loren Stillman (alto saxophone), Brad Shepik (guitar) and Mark Ferber (drums). Together, they work to embody the enlightening and educating routes of fools with jokey but tender phrasing.
Jester was recorded live in Germany during the group’s most recent tour.
Kell’s arrangements are remarkably sharp, with moments of impact striking after a docile foundation is laid. He progresses soundly, but casts caution to the wind when changing directions or tones. The music is provocative and real as a result, owning up to the boundary-pushing undertaking behind the album’s titular enchanter.
If being a jester is about pushing the lines and learning what lies beyond the norm, Kell accomplishes the same by breaching boundaries of composition and volunteering a freer conversation. His quartet finds congruence, but they have to work at it.
This is established at the outset of Jester with “Quarter Sawn.” Kell places a bass outline that recurs throughout and the band builds around it; each instrument provides ideas and some, like Stillman’s saxophone, take a few moments to heat up notwithstanding the bushy groove below. This somewhat hesitant approach flowers into larger bearing, but the loath mischievousness remains.
Or there’s the aching heartbeat-like bass of “Ijinna,” with its qualities of dispersed instruments and cries in distracted night. And the charming “Tiki Time Bomb” toys finely with pacing and scale, with slender threads of wit woven in to Stillman’s saxophone.
If “clowning is a public confession for humanity,” Jester provides the soundtrack for the cleansing process. This is music beyond the chart; it is sentient art, challenging listeners with incongruent lines and exhilarating, exacting conversations. It is volatile, daring jazz – bells and funny outfits optional.