Let me start this review off by saying that most of what the musician who created Jackalope, R. Carlos Nakai, plays leaves me terribly bored. Yes, bored. Bored quite stiff. Even the other Jackalope albums that I’ve heard over the years were not very interesting for me. But Dances with Rabbits has had more playings in this household that I can count as it simply has not a less-than-stellar cut on it.
Wait a minute — wasn’t Dances with Rabbits a film? And a horrid film at that? No, you’re thinking of the Kevin Costner debacle called Dances with Wolves. We will not be discussing that terrible undertaking here.
The Canyon Records website says ‘The jackalope (lepus antilocapra erectus) has long been thought a hoax inflicted upon tourists and gullible individuals. The native peoples of the American Southwest have long known otherwise and consider the jackalope an important part of urban ecology. Some zoologists classify it as a cross between a jackrabbit and an antelope, while others believe the jackalope to be the ancestor from which those species descended. A wary and elusive creature, the jackalope is known for its distinctive songs and amazingly varied courtship dances. The similarities are so strong, that if someone has a way with the opposite sex, it is often said that he (or she) dance with rabbits.’ Ahhh, pagan fertility rites! YES!
Now it would also suggest that Jackalope is one of those musician projects where the band doesn’t exist on a continual basis, like Cats Laughing in their legendary heyday. The Canyon website gain confirms that belief: ‘An ongoing fraternity is Jackalope, a culturally diverse jazz ensemble with several recordings to their name, which was founded by Larry Yañez and Nakai. The group’s music, self-described as synthacousticpunkarachiNavajazz uses electronic and modern instruments mixed with traditional, ethnic instruments allowing Nakai to again break the rules…’ In that, they are like Cats Laughing; in the blending of musical genres that often are never allowed to merge into something more than their separate parts.
How they differ from Cats Laughing is simple — Jackalope’s made up of professional musicians who have prolly been in more bands than they remember being in, but Cats Laughing is a band made up of extremely talented amateurs.
Now that doesn’t tell you, dear reader, what makes Dances with Rabbits so bleedin good. Well, it’s all in the word that they use to describe their music: SynthacousticpunkarachiNavajazz. I know — it’s silly nonsense word, but here it makes sense. Or at least it makes (non)sense. What Jackalope has done on this album is put an irreverent and very listenable spin on on its Southwestern, Native American, ethno-modern music. Jackalope the band is as much a fusion of things that seem ill-suited to be fused as the Jackalope the beast is. Jackalope’s a band that should’ve been invented by Terri Windling as one of the bands in her novel The Wood Wife. This album sounds too good to be real. I know — ethnic percussion and wind instruments with synthesizers sounds like some New Age music crap. It isn’t. Instead R. Carlos, one of the best flutists ever, gets everything right on this album. It’s a smokey jazz, it’s moody with a edge of something cool, it’s music that sounds like everything that you hope Southwest First Nation music would be — and which it generally isn’t.
Now that still doesn’t explain why the other Jackalope albums don’t work for me. The answer is rather simple — this album, unlike the others this group did, is a dance album. That gives it a kick that the other albums are lacking. Nakai, who played the trumpet and studied Euro-centric symphonic music for twenty-five years before turning his attentions to the Native American flute, and his fellow musicians Yañez (on keyboards and guitar), J. David Munuz (guitar and bass), and Will Climpan (percussion) have essentially created a jazz album that uses Southwestern Native American motifs. And they have fun doing so — something very much lacking on their previous three albums. Nakai is quoted online as saying that a band should have fun but ‘No one ever does, though … The concert hall atmosphere is just too serious, I suppose …’
How much fun they’re having can be best heard in the coda piece of ‘Fried Bread Grease Blues’ in which the narrator first describes being at Market Day in some Southwest town when everything is getting covered by the smoke and grease from the ladies frying the fry bread; it covers everything. The narrator makes a hacking throat-clearing sound before the band starts riffing off what sounds like the best late night jazz you’ve ever been fortunate to hear. Cool, very cool.
From ‘One Night in Tijuana’ which opens Dances with Rabbits to the jazzy closing tune of ‘Fried Bread Grease Blues’, this is a perfect album. Though I never saw them live, I’m betting this CD captures their live feel rather nicely. Indeed I can smell the smoky grease from the ladies and their bread wafting this way now … Let’s grab a bottle of Negra Modelo beer and kick back to enjoy the music!
(Canyon Records, 1993)