Critical praise has greeted Tangent, the latest album by Ultrafaux, Baltimore’s well-known gypsy jazz ensemble. Tom Cole, senior editor for arts, music, and culture on NPR/Pacifica Radio, writes: “Ultrafaux stands out from all of the other Django Reinhardt-inspired bands because they perform original material.” Sam Sessa of Towson-based WTMD says, “Just when you think you’ve got this band pegged, they surprise you. This is some of their most adventurous and beguiling music yet.”
Ultrafaux is comprised of musical powerhouses Michael Joseph Harris (lead guitar), Sami Arefin (rhythm guitar) and Zach Serleth (upright bass). Their original gypsy jazz-inspired compositions range from melodic tongue-twisters to carefully crafted musical dialogues.
Much of their musical personality is drawn from a combination of international styles, such as French musette, Brazilian Choro, Romani folk songs, and Balkan music. In their fourth album Tangent, they reflect such traits as major and minor keys shifts, the inclusion of movements, odd meters, and chromaticism. Their sound is also influenced by romantic classical composers Debussy and Ravel, but above all, by the music of Django Reinhardt, a Romani-French jazz guitarist and composer of the 1930s-40s.
However, this time they depart from their usual trio format to partner with several guest players. The artists featured on this album represent some of the world’s most vibrant jazz communities, including Nashville, New Orleans and, of course, Baltimore.
Harris, the group’s bandleader and composer, patiently orchestrated the recording process over the span of two years, working with artists from near and far: on clarinet, Giacomo Smith from London and Connor Stewart from New Orleans; on violin, Patrick McAvinue from Nashville and Jason Anick from Boston; on accordion, Dallas Vietty from Philadelphia. Nashville-based Geoff Saunders is guest bassist on a few tracks as well. As compared to Ultrafaux’s previous albums, the addition of these sounds allows them to gain foothold into new musical territory.
The album is an intimate experience, offering a variety of instrumentation and a wide dynamic range. It also brings in a few small changes to the band’s usual configuration by including more arrangement-based songs and fewer improvised solos. The first track to debut the album is “Jaguar,” a composition rich in exploration and imagination. The song has a driving introduction that filled me with a sense of adventure and excitement, reminiscent of theme songs of popular television series such as The Walking Dead and Stranger Things. Right away, I was gripped by a sense of urgency that eventually softened into a Rhumba-style climax. Suddenly, I was kindly released into a sweet–almost romantic–ambience. Anick soon enters to enhance the mood with a series of violin arpeggios.
True to its name, “Convergence” is a track that blends gloom with optimism. One might say it is a contemporary cousin of French musette, or “bal-musette,” which was a popular Parisian waltz music during the late nineteenth century. Now, the intent is geared towards thoughtful listening. As the song ends, Vietty guides the listener into a dreamy, polyrhythmic conclusion on his accordion.
Harris also reintroduces three of his originals previously recorded in 2014, “Dame Ivre,” “Je Ne Sais Pas,” and “Racer X,” but this time adding violin, accordion, and clarinet. When comparing each recording to their older versions, it was very clear to me how much of an impact these instruments made. The addition of these new sounds gives them a fresh, new take. It was like witnessing the rebirth of a phoenix.
Something that took me completely off guard was the title track “Tangent.” Instead of the usual swing guitar rhythm that I’m used to hearing from Ultrafaux, I was surprised by a funk composition in 7/8. Needless to say, it stands out proudly and unapologetically. Harris and Anick display high levels of performance chemistry, much like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, as they share the same lines, trade solos, and come back together to head out in synced unison.
Arefin briefly takes a break from his solid rhythm work to show off his improvisation skills on “Bayou Blues.” He has a unique style of playing that always leaves me feeling pleasantly shocked. Here, he is hopping between light-hearted melodic simplicity and unleashing a cacophonic cascade.
Tangent is, indeed, a showcase of artistic clout, and from all the players’ efforts, we are given a charismatic collaboration–one that invites us on a stylistic and rhythmic adventure.
The album can be purchased digitally or hard copy on Bandcamp or michaeljosephharis.com. Follow them on their Facebook page to catch their live virtual concerts as well!
Kristoffer Belgica is a Texas native who moved to Maryland in 2015. He is a swing guitar player currently studying Django jazz with Sami Arefin. He plays with the DC-based gypsy jazz band Swing 5 and Baltimore Swing Drop. His regular performance venues include The Rye in Fells Point, Maryland Meadworks in Hyattsville, and assisted living and retirement communities.