Yes, the name is intriguing - but what should one expect musically from the San Francisco-based Electric Squeezebox Orchestra? Bits and pieces of a number of disparate elements, really, from straight-ahead contemporary motifs to shuffle beats and old-line swing, from down-home New Orleans rhythms to throwback grooves from the '70s and even a seductive ballad. What matters most is that every number is capably performed by an ensemble comprised of some of the more seasoned sidemen (and one woman) the Bay Area has to offer.
Trumpeter Erik Jekabson, the ESO's de facto leader, wrote the ballad, "It's Gonna Be Allright" (on which he also solos), as well as the evocative "Electric Squeezebox" and New Orleans-style "Gap Toothed Grin," which is a pleasure from start to finish. Jekabson, fellow trumpeter Darren Johnston and drummer Eric Garland are the happy-go-lucky soloists on "Grin," spreading sunlight and cheer while the band cooks up a Cajun-flavored banquet behind them. Wayne Shorter is represented by the fleet, boppish opener, "ESP," Herbie Hancock by "People Music," singer Mel Torme by "Chataigne Grilles" whose middle section reprises his greatest hit, "The Christmas Song." Johnston composed the propulsive title selection, tenor Doug Morton "Compus Mentis," alto Sheldon Brown "Bolenge Shuffle," baritone Charlie Gurke "Trotsky," the upbeat and swinging finale on which he solos brightly, as do Garland, pianist Grant Levin, trombonist Rob Ewing and bassist Tommy Folen.
If the EJO's goal is disciplined variety, it certainly succeeds, laying bare an affinity for a wide range of music, all of which it approaches with awareness and respect. Soloists adapt to the material, while the ensemble strikes the proper balance between articulation and enthusiasm. Little wonder the orchestra has landed a regular Sunday night gig and built a loyal fan base at Doc's Lab in the city's North Beach neighborhood. Cheap Rent marks a splendid debut, one that betokens great promise for enterprises yet to come.