Though he’s gone on to compose symphonies, ballet, film and TV scores, in many ways the Graham Reynolds of today is the same person who once led the anarchist Golden Arm Trio. Back in the nineties, when KUT ran a live Christmas music special for a few years, Graham came in and furiously deconstructed “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”, and not so much in a Cecil Taylor kind of way. It had menace and seemed closer to punk rock than cerebral jazz. He might have dressed up and assembled a peerless 14-piece band for the premiere Austin performance of Marfa: A Country and Western Big Band Suite (Saturday, Nov. 23 at the Highball), but that same malevolence was still there. Quieting the full house by pounding his piano, Reynolds introduced steel guitarist Ricky Davis, whose shimmering and seesawing four-note runs lay out the theme (which Reynolds joked he nicked from Floyd Cramer). The album opens with the same grandeur. The composition, part of a planned Marfa Triptych, dates to its 2013 premiere in the town’s namesake. Reynolds finally found the time and funding to reassemble the ensemble in the studio. Marfa, right? It’s easy to imagine Aaron Copeland/John Ford –like majesty, but what’s here is mysterious and like the city itself, sports a weird mix of edginess. “Union Pacific”, celebrating the railroad that runs through the town’s center, has a Keystone Cops playfulness. “Runaway” finds the string section darting at a relentless speed. “Ojinaga”, conjures Marfa’s nearby border town with horns, strings and guitars all fighting for attention over a spaghetti western funk bed. Telecaster master Redd Volkaert gets a full workout on “Redd Redd Redd” while “The Inhabited”, with its haunting Eastern vibe, throws the entire ensemble into overdrive (and was a real highlight of the live show). “Stampede” continues the fury, with Reynolds himself finally turning loose. Despite its eclecticism, Marfa is a cohesive work, aided by great performances, a guileless lack of pretense, and Reynolds’ eagerness to push things beyond the norm. If you haven’t been to this West Texas oasis, it’s almost impossible to describe the spell its strange culture clash casts over the landscape, but now, at least, we have a soundtrack.
Review by Jeff McCord, KUTX Music Editor