At the core of guitarist, composer, and educator Garrison Fewell's Variable Density Sound Orchestra lies the duo with Eric Hofbauer which made the captivating Lady of Khartoum
(Creative Nation, 2008). Supplementing the two guitars on the debut of this new ensemble, Fewell expands into orchestral realms, broadening his sonic palette to seven instruments, in a generous program of original compositions, complemented by one piece from the pen of Butch Morris.
Boasting a back story including John Tchicai, George Cables, and Fred Hersch, Fewell has been on the scene for more than 30 years, holding down a professorship at Berklee College of Music for much of that time. Rounding out the line-up, he has secured the talents of NYC free jazz trumpet dynamo Roy Campbell, Italian Berklee alumnus Achille Succi on reeds, Boston stalwart John Voigt on bass, newcomer Miki Matsuki on drums, and his son Alex on percussion on two tracks. Fewell's charts allow navigation in the free jazz idiom, often drawing on subsets of the ensemble to realize his aims. As explicated in the liners Fewell's goal "is to create balance, not allowing individual soloists, collective instant composing or pre- composed material to dominate for too long," and in the shifting textures and interactions which make up these ten cuts he has succeeded admirably.
Though primarily an orchestral music, there is still ample space for the component parts to sparkle. Campbell puts in an outstanding performance in the free lyrical vein, with his gorgeous flugelhorn extemporization on "Olorun Song" bringing to mind Kenny Wheeler's ECM oeuvre, while he smolders and eventually burns on muted trumpet on "The Red Pyramid". Succi's conversational acumen on bass clarinet and alto saxophone spices the give and take without ever becoming overbearing. He has a marvelous outing on "Venus" where his bass clarinet leaps over the ensemble with vocalized cries, before tumbling through the registers as he embarks on a lengthy journey.
Fewell's bright warm sound epitomizes the relaxed vibe of this session, and is an easy match for Campbell in the free melodic stakes. One of many pluses is the sparring with fellow guitarist Hofbauer which underpins and enriches the ensembles. Voigt and Matsuki make a formidable rhythm pairing and the bassist demonstrates his responsiveness and sagacity in colloquy with Campbell at the close of "The Red Pyramid" and Fewell on "Olorun Song".
Notwithstanding the diverse compositional strategies there is a lyrical cohesiveness to this set, from the scene-setting of "Spectrononomous" where the group dialogue builds off the angular theme, through to the loping riff and duetting horns and guitar pairs of "Namthini's Shadow". Elsewhere "Calculations At Yaxchilan" entrances with Campbell's flute wending a moody path through a cloud forest of mysterious percussion, chirping bass clarinet, and bowed guitar towards a processional shuffle. Delights abound on every track and while there is no doubting the serious intent, this recording must have been as much fun to make as it is to listen to.
Personnel: Garrison Fewell: guitars, percussion; Roy Campbell: trumpet,
flugelhorn, flute, percussion; Achille Succi: bass clarinet, alto
saxophone; Eric Hofbauer: guitars, percussion; John Voigt: bass; Miki
Matsuki: drums; Alex Fewell: percussion (6, 9).