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Dan Willis: The Voice of a Tone Poet

By Published: October 12, 2010
"This comes into focus sharply, I think, with the overlapping of violin and reeds, and the Hammond B3 organ—decidedly American—with 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 playful—whether 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 chords—the 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 well—the 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 project—a 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."

Selected Discography

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)

Photo Credit

All Photos: Jill Steinberg

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