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Dan Willis: The Voice of a Tone Poet

By Published: October 12, 2010
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 fabric—was 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 also—I am still so—entranced 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 ensemble—up to ten players—interpreting 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 pieces—a heightened sense of movement of particles.

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Download jazz mp3 “Second Gymnopedie” by Dan Willis and Velvet Gentlemen