Adam Niewood & His Rabble Rousers: Epic Journey, Volumes I & II
Epic Journey, Volumes I & II
Still a young man, reed player Adam Niewood is a hard-to-pigeonhole enigma for jazz fans. He sounds equally comfortable across a broad range of instruments (the tenor saxophone is his mainstay); his education has taken him to Berklee, Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music; he has played with a handful of major names like Bill Charlap and Rufus Reid; and thanks to a family of professional musicians, he was on tour with Simon & Garfunkel before the age of five.
The result of this full and various resume is a musician whose playing is as sophisticated as it is difficult to get a read on. Saxophonist Greg Osby cut to the core when he pointed out that Niewood has a sound that's entirely his own, without any "strikingly obvious" models. Unlike most, he is not overly concerned with emulating any one jazz saxophone great: not John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, or Lester Young. He can bring lush, rich tones out of his horn, but he can wail at the borders of madness, too.
Niewood's compositions are just as diverse: the two volumes of Epic Journey run the gamut from thick harmonic clouds to spare, chilling moments of expressive minimalism. The range of sounds is in no small part due to Niewood's musicianslong-time collaborators playing a number of different instruments. Added to the leader's reeds (he plays seven in total over the course of the 18 tracks here) are Kristjan Randalu's doubling on piano and Rhodes, and Rohin Khemani's menagerie of world percussion. Together, they create a framework where anything can happen.
And in fact, at one point or another, most things do. Volume II focuses on seven consecutive group improvisationswhich, thanks to fine production work by Niewood and his mentor Bill Goodwin, sounds clean, warm and distinct throughout. Two Niewood compositions bookend the improvisations, setting the jump-off and landing points for the suite. Naturally, one factor in such large-scale improvisation is that the musicians must opt for simpler, more forthright harmonies, or else make things overly cloudy and inexpressive. As a result, the free improvisations sometimes step farther out of jazz.
Nevertheless, what they accomplish is, at moments, quite extraordinary. The first section, "Movin' & Groovin,'" is a fantastic, sinister jam, propelled by Greg Ritchie's spare shuffling drumbeat. Whereas elsewhere on the album Jesse Lewis' guitar can seem a complication in the musical texture, here his restrained pulse is a brilliant effect. Randalu's piano lines, when they appear, are like a sudden splash of oil on a growing fire (listen for a fantastic and bewildering run up the keyboard around six and a half minutes in). And over all of this, Niewood bobs and weaves with focused energy. Particularly for the first half of the song when he's on soprano, the sound is extraordinaryan anxious premonition of what's to come.
Ultimately, the arc of such a long free suite has to draw upon extreme sounds in order to maintain some texture, and give a sense of change over time. The last two free sections, "Breaking And Entering" and "Stimuli," alternate between the furtive and the paranoid. The sound is powerful, but also at times terrifying. For simple visceral strengthto say nothing of the group consciousness of the playersthe entirety of Volume II is an impressive achievement.
These explorations exist in a parallel world to the more jazz-oriented Volume I. Several of Niewood's compositions here are quite lovely"Mellow Drama" comes to mind first, with its seductive bolero feel, followed closely by "Electoral College" and "Not Quite Right." But at other times, the instrumentation can feel over-rich. At times, Randalu's organ feels excessive, especially when it shares the middle register with the guitar. Elsewhere they sing wonderfullylike when Lewis cranks up the Pat Metheny-ish tone on "Out Of The Woods, For Now...." None of these songs have the shrillness of the second disc's explorations. As a result, they are more often beautiful, but not quite so memorable. Still, hearing Niewood cast his net so wide, and yet draw up such divergent but compelling materials, is a testament to his profound (if enigmatic) capacities.
Tracks: CD1: Demented Lullaby; Ella Bella; Not Quite Right; Electoral College; Where's The Cat???; Reprise; Out Of The Woods, For Now...; Mellow Drama; Child Psychology. CD2: Entirely Too Tonal; Movin' & Groovin'; Loved Ones; Calm Before The Storm; A Rap Tap Tap In The Night; First Sign Of Clarity; Breaking And Entering; Stimuli; Five Corridors.
Personnel: CD1: Adam Niewood: tenor, C melody, soprano, alto and baritone saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet; Jesse Lewis: guitar; Kristjan Randalu: piano (1, 2, 4, 7), Fender Rhodes (5, 6, 9); Matt Brewer: bass (1, 3, 5, 7, 9); Chris Higgins: bass (2, 4, 8); Rohin Khemani: drums (4, 5, 6), djembe, doumbek, frame drum, elephant bells, Tibetan bowl, African rattles and shakers (1-8); Greg Ritchie: drums and cymbals (1, 2, 3, 5-9). CD2: Adam Niewood: tenor, C melody and soprano saxophones; Kristjan Randalu: piano, Fender Rhodes; Jesse Lewis: guitar; Matt Brewer: electric bass; Chris Higgins: acoustic bass; Rohin Khemani: drums, cymbals, djembe, doumbek, frame drum, elephant bells, Tibetan bowl, African rattles and shakers; Greg Ritchie: drums and cymbals.