Innocent When You Dream: Dirt In The Ground
Aaron Shragge Music

Were Tom Waits to be presented with Innocent When You Dream's two albums, 2010's Celebrating The Music Of Tom Waits and the just-released Dirt In The Ground, I'm sure they'd receive his unqualified stamp of approval. Said reaction wouldn't stem merely from the fact that Aaron Shragge established the outfit to perform instrumental covers of Waits's songs; it's more that the NYC-based trumpeter and his group have magnificently distilled the ramshackle spirit of Waits's music into their own versions. No band covering his material should sound too polished; instead, an appropriately loose but not sloppy handling is called for, and that's exactly what Innocent When You Dream delivers.

Though the musicians involved are nominally jazz players, Dirt In The Ground largely downplays jazz for a kind of folk, blues, rock, and R&B hybrid, with each song showing off a slightly different side of the band. Memorably supplementing his custom-made, slide-enhanced 'Dragon Mouth' trumpet with shakuhachi, the leader's joined by tenor saxist Jonathan Lindhorst, guitarist Ryan Butler, bassist Dan Fortin, drummer Nico Dann, and on all but three tracks pedal steel guitarist Joe Grass. Shragge used the originals' lyrics and moods as starting points, but familiarity with Waits's originals isn't a prerequisite for appreciating Dirt In The Ground when its instrumentals speak perfectly well on their own behalf.

The band's versatility is on full display, with at one moment the group waxing lyrically and the next roaring like some greasy R&B cover outfit, and each musician is an important contributor to the project, whether it be Butler's textural shadings, Lindhorst's gutbucket honk, or Grass's distinctive pedal steel. A robust and hard-grooving opener, “Chicago” sets the tone with a bluesy take that sees the guitarist powering the tune with a grungy riff and the horns wailing with full-throated abandon. “All the World is Green” allows a smoky Lindhorst to seemingly channel Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins in his solo turns, whereas “In the Neighbourhood” sees the trumpeter and bassist draping elegant solos across the tune's lilting waltz framework. Shragge's shakuhachi proves to be a perfect choice of lead for “Dirt in the Ground” when the instrument brings such a haunting quality to the dirge.

With a whiskey shot or two as lubricant, a few of these tunes could easily bring a tear to the eye. “Ol' 55” is particularly lovely, especially when the band voices the song's yearning melodies with such deep feeling. On this album standout, Grass's contributions will break your heart all by themselves, if Lindhorst's solos don't do it first, and in like manner, the emotional ache the leader's shakuhachi playing brings to “The Briar and the Rose” will stay with you long after the album's done. As credible as the uptempo tracks are, it's the ballads that ultimately make the strongest possible argument for Shragge's project; in that regard, it seems only fitting that this fine collection should end with the wistful “You Can Never Hold Back Spring,” as gorgeous a closer as you'll likely hear this year.

May 2017