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The Picture Show is a three-disc set by the Treehouse Project that attempts to invoke mental images of the music as it unfolds from a collage of dissimilar styles into a common Jazz form. Family photographs were used as the composing stimulus for each song, and the band melds its playing around the conceptual thoughts of each shot. Led by drummer and composer Reed, the music has a strong link to the past and a firm foot in the present. Their sound, which is distinguished by the pedal steel guitar and the raucous tenor and clarinet playing of Doyle, is quite unique. Guitarist Bunn and bassist Thompson, who also plays the ukelele violin, round out the core group.
Prologue: Cameo Frame opens with the quartet of Champion, Doyle, Reed and Thompson. They paint an abbreviated history of Jazz in short episodes, including tributes to the slow drag, the barrelhouse style, an advanced form of New Orleans music, dirty dancing, an infectious form of military cadence, and modern country and western. Doyle plays a dominant role in telling these stories, whether he is eking out high passages on clarinet or spiriting the band in a robust manner on tenor. Reed aptly projects the rhythm patterns for all these variations and is typically an up-front, pervasive force on all the selections. There are minor touches of less constrained playing that surface in spurts, but structure and definable rhythm patterns prevail behind the coralled improvisations.
The main phase of the project is The Picture Show. On this second disc, Bunn joins with Champion in giving double guitar support, although the pedal steel version has a very different tonality than the standard electric instrument. It opens with the rhythm & blues beat of the late 1950s, where the guitarists get funky and Doyle takes on the honking style of that day. The music segues into bluesy melodies where the soloists become mellow, and then it sashays to a western motif with the C&W sound of the steel guitar establishing the trail. A touch of German beer tent beat is simulated as well. Pianist Anderson, harpist Shrag, trumpeter Walcott, and banjo player Poston add further coloring and distinctiveness to this chameleonic music. Bebop, post bop, and numerous variations thereon follow to permit the musicians to change their identity for a moment in time. The progression of styles stops short of the free improvisation period, keeping the program frozen in time at its most forward point.
Epilogue: Last...Words closes the trilogy with a retreat to upbeat country swing mixed with the rhythm and blues beat. The core quintet handles the duties. They take a different tack by focusing on music more identifiable with vocalists than instrumentalists. The tunes, none of which is written by Reed, have a more structured posture, allowing the original lyrics of the songs to surface in one's mind. Some improvisation occurs, but the intent is to honor the song form.
The Treehouse Project is a very interesting group of musicians. They tackle many retro genres of Jazz and its derivatives and give an updated view of each through their solid musicality. The structure at times is inhibiting, but the playing consistently works around this. Reed has capably communicated what he saw in the photographs to his audience.