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The Treehouse Project is a collective of Chicago musicians led by drummer/composer Mike Reed. The ensemble’s sophomore release, The Picture Show, is an imaginative jazz concept album that weaves improvisational music with old photographs and forgotten lyrics to create a multidimensional portrait in sound. Cued from an odd array of family photographs, The Treehouse Project features guitarist Colin Bunn of Kevin O’Donnell’s Quality Six, tenor saxophonist Jon Doyle of the Wabash Jug Band, pedal steel guitarist Ken Champion (a protégé of Jim O’Rourke’s) and Mighty Blue Kings producer Matt Thompson (on bass). Together, this quintet assembles 28 songs on a 3 disc box set.
Many of the images that inspire this music are included in the album sleeves. They are at once benign yet full of character. Listening to Prologue: Cameo Frame, the opening disc, is comparable to wandering through the attic of an old house – around every corner is a new a discovery. Dominated by Champion’s swooning steel guitar, and Doyle’s buttery tone, the material of Prologue is calming if a bit melancholy. The disc’s standout track, “The Party,” features the image of a well lubricated family during a holiday festivity. In contrast to the joyful scene, the music is sorrowful, with a deliberate slow drag. Comparable to how vocalists sing ahead or behind the beat, the constantly twisting music on Prologue attempts to either predict or interpret its corresponding image.
Disc two and title disc, The Picture Show, raises the musical exploration to freestyle heights, by presenting an almost steady drift of form from rock/fusion to bebop, R&B, and even hints of Celtic twang. While each piece is structured, in the great jazz tradition, each contributor has room to stand ahead or fall behind the core unit. As a result, varied sounds fall out of pattern and waft through complex arrangements, creating compositionally free pieces such as ”The Slow Learners Club” and the “The Cocktail Party Effect.” Disc two adds harpist Lisa Shragg, trumpeter Nate Walcott, pianist Brian Anderson, and banjo player John “Bud” Poston. This heightens the intensity and conceptual drive of this ambitious montage.
In contrast to its predecessors, Epilogue: Last…Words does not feature photos or even original compositions. Instead Reed and the band loosely reinterpret tracks from, among other notables, Ray Charles, Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Handsome Family. The lyrics to these songs are found in the liner notes, and reading them while listening to the modestly twisted covers offers some overdue pleasure. While intended to release it, free jazz can often constrict the mind. These tunes enable the listener to capture each musician’s unique style. Though conceptually inconsistent, Epilogue supports rather than detracts from the total package.
The Picture Show is art house entertainment. While sometimes brash and kinetic, the material is too loosely assembled to call this a masterpiece album. Nonetheless this side is eminently entertaining and demands repeat listening. Fans of improvisational – go to it – music will find The Picture Show to be a great reward.