Six self-confessed "music-major types" have built an omnivorous mutant of a band.
At performances, Lovely Socialite Mrs. Thomas W. Phipps - or just Lovely Socialite, for sanity's sake - provides some of the more unusual sights in Madison music. Bassist Ben Willis and vibraphone player Abe Sorber concentrate eerily on their instruments, looking like doting morticians. Corey Murphy indulges in the strange excess of playing his trombone through a wah-wah pedal. Cellist Brian Grimm sometimes fills out the band's brittle high end on a mandolin-like Chinese instrument called the pipa.
Plenty of local musicians in their early 20s thrive on self-taught skills or unruly amateurism, but this jazz sextet has its roots in formal training. Willis recruited Murphy and cellist Pat Reinholz for a senior recital at UW-Madison. The band's first album, Registers Her Delight, which they'll celebrate with a Friday show at Dragonfly Lounge, studiously harnesses the training but also deconstructs it.
"Especially coming from the classical realm at UW's [music school], playing jazz and free music is something that wasn't frowned upon, it just didn't exist in the heads of anyone there," Reinholz says.
The album begins with Murphy's compositions "GFY" and "Brachiosaurus Boogie (For Kids!)," both of which feature a chorus of children, recorded by a music-teacher friend. The tracks share the over-the-top playfulness of Murphy's hip-hop project Fambly Fun!
The children's chanting and clapping weren't "actually in the time of the tune, but it was a really happy accident that it's this funky rhythm that lines up with where we put it," Reinholz says. "So it sounds like these kids are grooving really hard, but it's really just a big stroke of luck." The next track combines Willis' "Rock It, Science" and Murphy's "Brainshovel" into 20 minutes of abrasive cello squeaks and uncertain, teetering open spaces.
Willis sees the group as a workshop for new and partially formed compositions, one that has yet to completely throw out a song idea. "It's fun to have that incentive to write new music and play other people's new music," he says.
Murphy's taste for funk and Willis' ambition to meld composition and free-jazz daring dominate the record. But its tightest track, "Foolish Peripatetic," was written by Grimm, a Butler University-trained composer. The song demonstrates how essential drummer Mike Koszewski is to reconciling all of Lovely Socialite's tendencies. Koszewski swings with ease through odd meters, while also lending the beat a regular punch.
Koszewski meets the tricky demands of "Hot Lunch," which Murphy seems to have written for both a funk outfit and a disoriented marching band. With its maniacal group laughter fading in and out, it's one of several tracks that pit cohesion against joyful abandon.
Like many Madison musicians, Lovely Socialite's members split time with other projects, some of which make music that's likewise daunting. During January's sessions for Registers Her Delight with Landon Arkens at Madison's Blast House Studio, Grimm also found time to record an album with the Brothers Grimm, which pairs his cello with his brother AJ's flamenco guitar. The Grimm brothers, Reinholz and Willis also form the improvisatory Watercourse Quartet, while Reinholz and Willis venture far into drones and repetition under the name Weather Duo.
Another layer of disorder emerges when Lovely Socialite lengthens its sets with a genuinely perverse selection of covers. Rammstein's goth-pity anthem "Du Hast" is an occasional feature, and Grimm has been working on a medley of J Dilla tunes, inspired by Robert Glasper's jazz-trio arrangements of the late producer's work.
Lovely Socialite's music benefits from its members' formal discipline. Still, the group maintains a sense of humor, which is a feat for brainy instrumental music. "We're all sort of goofy guys in one context, but we're also very serious about what we do," Willis says. "Kind of borderline pretentious a lot of the time."