When I heard that Matt Cameron, the drummer for Pearl Jam and the former drummer for Soundgarden, had formed a jazz trio, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Sure, I knew that Cameron had dabbled quite a bit in his 22-year recording career. He worked with side projects like Wellwater Conspiracy and Hater. And he took turns behind the drum-kit with Smashing Pumpkins, Geddy Lee, and Tony Iommi. But a fucking jazz trio? No way.
With equal parts trepidation and anticipation, I slid the self-titled debut for Harrybu McCage in my player and sat back with my eyes closed. Joined by Ryan Burns on keyboard/guitars and Herbie Hancock bassist Geoff Harper, Cameron contributes guitar and, of course, drums.
The first track, “I Mean You,” eases in agreeably and the progress from the rock Cameron knows best to the jazz he knows well is understated and surprisingly smooth. An almost flighty guitar riff accents the Hawkins and Monk tune and Harper’s bass carries the song through its relatively quick pace. Cameron’s stable hand guides the track from the back, but he’s never brassy and always on point. Burns’ keyboard accents the song nicely. There’s even a moment of crushing distorted guitar at about the four-minute mark that progresses things into familiar territory for Pearl Jam fans without abandoning the clear jazz foundation.
Needless to say, Harrybu McCage has impressed me already.
By nailing the piano introduction to Duke Ellington’s “A Little Max,” it becomes clear that Cameron’s trio knows their stuff. And why shouldn’t they? Matt has assembled a top class group of musicians and the song choices on the debut are brilliant.
Harrybu McCage certainly has a thing for Thelonious Monk (hey, who doesn’t?) as five of the ten songs come from his oeuvre. The trio’s interpretations of pieces like “Evidence” and “Off Minor” are dead right.
But it’s when Cameron’s crew tackles “Monk’s Mood” that things really take off. A vast, soulful track, Burns’ beautiful keyboard work is inviting and the simple backdrop of Cameron’s percussion and Harper’s bass never overreach.
There are two original songs on the record, too. Ryan Burns has penned “Jetskiing on Priest Lake” and Cameron contributes with “Rhodes Jam,” an impressive track with heavy keyboard and guitar accents.
Elements of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine are mined as Harrybu McCage takes on Funkadelic’s 1974 track “Alice In My Fantasies.” A storming, blistering inferno of a track, this is how the jazz trio unwinds after tightening things up for the previous nine songs. It’s a hell of a way to end a very compelling and interesting album.
With elements of rock and traditional jazz, Harrybu McCage has constructed a technically-sound and audibly-pleasing debut record. It is arguably the most appealing of Cameron’s many side projects and the musical quality is first-rate.
The album is currently available at independent music stores and through Pearl Jam’s Ten Club at www.pearljam.com.