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Preview: Herculaneum at The Hideout, 3/27/13

by Neil Tessler

Naming your band after an ancient and little-known Roman town destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD – collateral damage to Pompeii – doesn’t seem like the surest way to attract notice for an already hard-to-categorize instrumental outfit. But the Chicago sextet Herculaneum has still garnered enough notice to warrant a decade of steady activity, yielding five albums in the process, and landing them in their home town for a 10th-anniversary celebration at Hideout on Wednesday, March 27.

The band’s longevity might make others green with envy.

The Herculaneum concept features four horns, bass, and drums playing tightly-knit melodies, splayed across rhythms strongly shaped by rock and Afro-pop; the tunes open up into meaty, highly accessible solos seasoned with strong technique and lyrical phrasing. It’s a post-modernist take on Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and certainly not unique to Herculaneum: for instance, bands such as The Reptet (formed a few years earlier in Seattle) have carved a similar niche. And if you replace one of the horns with vibraphone, you can arguably trace the roots for such projects to Dave Holland’s superb quintet of the mid-80s.

What distinguishes Herculaneum, though, is the infusion of rhythmic activity throughout the horns. On tenor saxist Nate Lepine’s “Fern,” a gentle and inventive line from the 2012 album Uchū, you first notice the clockwork beat in the cymbals. But Lepine, rather than bassist Greg Danek, offers the bass line that grounds the piece; as the solos progress, the horns’ countermelodies and off-kilter accents enrich the rhythmic carpet laid down by drummer Dylan Ryan, and the temporal swirl becomes quite irresistible. On Ryan’s composition “Elizabeth Perkins,” he achieves similar goals with horn-chorale counterpoint that calls to mind the early days of the band Chicago.

Herculaneum boasts musicianship across the board, and plenty of timbral variety as Lepine, altoist Dave McDonnell, trumpeter Patrick Newberry, and trombonist Nick Broste (with an especially rich tone) take turns providing the lead voice on the ensembles. The band’s 2006 disc Orange Blossom had strong, clean compositions and lots of atmosphere; Uchū took a quantum jump to another level of energy, thanks in part to the addition of the edgy, hard-blowing Lepine. But Dylan Ryan remains first among equals, for two reasons. As the drummer, he sets the table for all of the subsequent rhythmic conversation; but he has also served as the band’s primary composer, having written all the music for their first four releases, and half the music for Uchū.

Herculaneum, the town, disappeared under one huge eruption. Herculaneum, the band, remains buoyed by the several small explosions that increasingly power each of their albums. They’ll celebrate 10 years together at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, Wednesday starting at 9:30.

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