Dan Willis: The Voice of a Tone Poet
There is an ancient Latin aphorism that was often central to a debate among philosophers discussing art. The debate itself began earlier than the time of Augustan Rome, and over time raged on, occupying the philosophers of Greece as much as it occupied the classicists. It addressed the question of whether poetry was a gift of nature or a product of conscious art or training. The aphorism came from 16th Century Venetian writer Coelius Rhodigenus, who wrote a chapter in his discourse, Lectiones Antiquae, entitled "An poeta nascitur, orator fiat, sicut receptum vulgo est..." The phrase later came to be crystallized as "poeta nascitur non fit," which essentially was a result of the ancient debate. The debaters may as well have been talking of music.
Unfortunately in the world of today, when most art has been so inexorably compromised by commerce, the very question may be so risqué as to draw the ire of music professors everywhere on earth. However, when you first turn on to the music of an artist of the caliber of multi-reed master Dan Willis and hear how mystically and magically oceans of sound flow through him, it may define the side of the debate where your sentiments lie. In answering the question, Willis himself might demur. He has, after all, attended the Eastman School of Music, but no one could have taught him how to fashion a palette that explores the myriad tones of notestheir timbres. The Eastman School may have taught him how to read the notes on a sheet of music, but no one could have taught him how to set them in a sequence as right as rain, as beguiling as the sequence of notes that bubble and tumble through his magnificent album, Velvet Gentlemen (Omni-Tone, 2006).
The album was genre-breaking. It was Inspired by the early late 19th century/early 20th century French pianist and composer Erik Satie, whose compositions were precursors of serialist and minimalist music, and the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, who made foundational contributions to quantum mechanics and was responsible for the Uncertainty Principle of Quantum Theory. Transposing the thought, word and deed of these seminal figures in Western culture upon the landscape of contemporary music, Willis was able to give their ideas wings, flying in the face of adversity to create a wholly mesmerizing stream of new music, cast in the rarefied idiom of jazz.
Willis was eminently qualified to make this album. He was a born experimentalist, with two earlier albums as a leader to prove it. The first was released by the small label Skyward Records in 1997. This was followed by the equally courageous album Hand to Mouth (A-Records, NL, 2001). But more than that, Willis had paid his dues. Years of polishing his chops in small clubs and slogging it out in New York City had meant that Willis had played in almost every musical situation. Willis played on multiple Broadway cast recordings and is on the cast of the popular show Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. On television the woodwind specialist has been heard on several commercials, including the animated children's series The Backyardigans). In cinema Willis has contributed to a selection of film scores and even made an appearance in the feature Mona Lisa Smile.
"My experiences with the late, great tenor saxophonist and EWI specialist, Michael Brecker... now that was really something... a spectacular, quite remarkable school of thought," he said in April of 2010. "But that would be a whole other interview, would it not?" he opined. Perhaps Willis would have grown exponentially when he toured Japan with Brecker, but he also grows with every performance with David Chesky's chamber group, Area 21, as well as with his experiences playing a completely different rolethat of a double-reed player (on the Armenian duduk and zurna, which he played at the world premiere of Strophes, composed and conducted by Yakov Kozlov). Then there is the extraordinary John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, of which Willis is a charter member of and has, in a sense shared in the Grammy nomination that Hollenbeck received for Eternal Interlude (Sunnyside Records, 2009).
But did Willis know that Satie was in the cards? He explained how The Satie Project (Daywood Records, 2010) came about: "Ten years ago, I suffered a frightening accident in which I had severe whiplash. Nothing seemed to work, until I decided to seek relief with acupuncture. It was there that I was sort of 'introduced' to the music of Erik Satie. I was sitting there waiting for my turn when I heard this: [hums the 'Third Gymnopedie'] and I was instantly taken up by the simplicity and allure of the melody. It was humorous and had an almost vertical quality to it as it progressed. This was Erik Satie interpreted by Pascal Rogé. I was entranced and decided that I wanted to hear more. ... Later on, when I listened to more of Satie, I wondered what it would be like to transpose these memorable, essentially solo piano pieces, to be played by a larger ensemble driven by brass and reeds and woodwinds. I became more obsessed when I heard the 'Gnossienne' pieces... and then the 'Nocturne' pieces.
"But I guess that was a long-term project. I got things started and going with the formation of Velvet Gentlemen. I suppose you could say that my first impressions of Satie were on that the title track of the first album I made with this ensemble, "Velvet Gentlemen." But of course it was more than just one track, although specifically, my dream of doing a program entirely of Satie's music began with that track," he said.
Of course, it was more than that. Assuming the name "Velvet Gentleman"a moniker that was given to Satie by Parisian children in the early part of the 20th Century, when the composer wore his trademark suits cut from velvet fabricwas a commitment to more than simply the imagery of the composer. But the album was infinitely more complex than that.
"Oh yeah," Willis agreed. "I was alsoI am still soentranced by the mysteries of Quantum Physics and Max Planck and, of course, Heisenberg. I mean, Planck said that 'science cannot solve the mystery of nature... because we ourselves are part of the mystery that we are trying to solve,' but Heisenberg put it like an arrow to the heart in his uncertainty principle, when he suggested that the more precisely we try to find out the location of particles in the atoms we study, the less likely we are to know their whereabouts... I believe he also called that the precision-randomness paradox, which is: by the time you find out where they are they have moved!
"Doesn't this sound exactly what Eric Dolphy once said on a Radio broadcast in Europe, a week before he died? He talked about the wonder of the magical moments that notes bring... how transitory they were... 'They last for a moment,' he said... and then they are gone! I cannot remember the exact words, but that was the essence of it. That was in 1964.
"That sounds prophetic. And that is what is so amazing about melting notes played by my duduk with [ensemble trumpet player] Chuck McKinnon's and Ron Osnowski's accordion," Willis said.
On "I'm not the Reverend," for instance, or the jazzy abstractions of "Closed Loops in Time," the result is not only vanishing magical moments like what Dolphy observed, but they also come close to Heisenberg's observation about the precision-randomness paradox. The dramatic cadenza in "I'm not the Reverend," featuring woodwinds and brass in a contrapuntal display of breathtaking proportions, captures the magical essence of Dolphy, especially his monumental flute and bass clarinet soli. The shimmering pings and the final movement of the cadenza are apt to fill the air with the dust of a medieval apothecary. In "Closed Loops in Time," Willis' tenor and bass clarinet interact with his overdubbed bass clarinet, and both dance and swing interminably with his samba whistle, English Horn and other reeds, and when all these instruments melt together with McKinnon's trumpet and even Pete McCann's guitar.
When asked about how he found a way to integrate Satie's influence into the music he composed for these dates, Willis explained: "In fact it would be more emphatic, I think, than improvising like jazz. I wanted to recreate the essentially piano works in the context of a large ensembleup to ten playersinterpreting Satie, whether it was the 'Gymnopedie' pieces or the 'Gnossienne' pieces."
The "Nocturnes" were a slightly different challenge, in that they presented rhythmic nuances entrenched in the melodies, which Willis attacked in an almost vertical manner, that is, with superimposed harmonies. This is not to say that improvisation is completely absent and these may be construed as strictly composed pieces, but there is an element of pure Third Stream music metaphorically entrenched in these interpretations of Satie. And there is, indeed, more drama in the interaction of the instrumentation of these piecesa heightened sense of movement of particles.
"This comes into focus sharply, I think, with the overlapping of violin and reeds, and the Hammond B3 organdecidedly Americanwith the accordion, which is, I think, more French," Willis said almost emphatically, as if to say that this was the heart of the matter with regard to The Satie Project.
"And there is also this fact: That Satie was playfulwhether deliberately so, or it was just his nature, I don't think that matters; suffice it to say that the music has that kind of appeal. And he was also a sort of 'world musician.' I mean, I have emphasized the mood of the 'Third Gymnopedie' and the 'First Gnossienne,' but there is a distinct Middle Eastern impression created by both pieces with the sub-dominant chords in the harmony of these pieces."
And that is what is so special about this music: that it lends itself to harmonic invention as well, when interpreted by the ensemble although it is not necessarily so, but then the amazing advances presented by the "Gymnopedies," published by Satie in 1888. These short, atmospheric pieces were written in ¾ time, with each sharing a common theme and structure. Collectively the "Gymnopedies" were precursors to what might be called "ambient music" today. They were gentle yet eccentric pieces that defied the classical tradition. For example, the first few bars of "Gymnopedie No. 1" consist of an alternating progression of two major seventh chordsthe first on the sub-dominant G and the second on the tonic D. This kind of harmony was entirely unknown at that time, in the late 19th Century. The melodies of these pieces were also unique: each used a deliberate but mild dissonance against the harmony, producing a kind of piquant, melancholy effect, intended to match Satie's performance instructions, which were to play each piece, "slowly," "dolorously" or gravely.
"They were not only in great advance of the tradition, but in some ways I think Satie was deliberately bucking the trend," Willis said, "and that is what drew me to them as wellthe fact that they were so advanced. And when you get into the 'Meditations' and the 'Nocturnes' and the 'Gnossiennes,' you realize that Satie was not just a fringe composer, but a truly important one."
On Willis' album, "Il Aubade" stands out as a truly magnificent foray into the realm of dissonance, beautifully interpreted and played with extreme virtuosity by Willis on the soprano saxophone and on the array of reeds he brought to this session. The jumping rhythm, also breathtakingly executed by Oswanski on accordion, together with McCann's guitar and the reeds and woodwinds and brass appear to crown Satie as a prince among composers of that era.
What does this album do for Dan Willis? "The idea was not to glorify me or my ensemble," Willis said, "but to let our emotions overlap, I guess. I had a kind of healing epiphany at that acupuncture session more than ten years ago, and I wanted to capture the entirety of my emotions to his music. I suppose it also proves that there is a distinct interconnectedness between the music of then and the music of now. I hope that more people will see it that way."
The package of the album is commendable as well. "You know, I always hope that people will notice that. The illustrations were special. I had a friend of mine, an artist named John Hughson, do the illustrations, and they turned out spectacularly. John also illustrated the cover for my previous album, Velvet Gentlemen. He took things much further here. ... John is a great artist, I think and these illustrations are proof of that," Willis said.
This album enhances and enriches Dan Willis' oeuvre exponentially. The Satie Project is not simply a whole stride forward, but it is a very dramatic creative leap. To even attempt the interpretations of Satie was a significant strain on Willis' transposing and arranging skills. Then there is the small matter of the number of reed instruments that he plays throughout the projecta carryover from the previous album, Velvet Gentlemen. Moreover, almost a decade has passed from when Willis first was inspired to pay true homage to Erik Satie. When asked what he has in store for music aficionados next, Willis said, "Oh no, days off, of course! I will hopefully take the album on tour. Then get back to my own compositions... and there are enough for an album, I think... and there is Part II of The Satie Project that I have material for, but that will take some work before I am able to release that album. ... But yeah, there is plenty in the works."
Dan Willis/Velvet Gentlemen, The Satie Project (Daywood Drive, 2010)
Dan Willis, Velvet Gentlemen (Omni-Tone, 2006)
Dan Willis, Hand to Mouth (A-Records, 2001)
Dan Willis, The Dan Willis Quartet (Skyward Records, 1997)
All Photos: Jill Steinberg