Nate Wooley refuses to make trivial music. Whether the endlessly creative trumpeter and composer is rethinking the relationship between artistic production and community, as on Mutual Aid Music (Pleasure of the Text, 2021), or pursuing ways to re-envision music's spiritual potential, seen most recently on 2020's Seven Storey Mountain VI (Pyroclastic Records), he always provides his listeners with a lot to ponder. This is no less evident with his Columbia Icefield project, which dives headlong into humankind's fraught relationship with nature. The group's self-titled debut in 2019 was promising, making use of the exceptional talents of guitarist Mary Halvorson, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, and drummer Ryan Sawyer. Now we have its second installment, and it is just as bracing and uncompromising as its predecessor.
Wooley was raised in the Pacific Northwest, and the massive glaciers which feed the Columbia River serve as a catalyst for reflection on both their life-giving indispensability and their imposing force. But with this release it seems impossible not to grapple at some level with the reality of climate change as well, and the way in which human activity is permanently altering even these most monumental natural phenomena. The titles of the pieces themselves indicate a spirit of foreboding, with "I Am the Sea that Sings of Dust" and "Returning to Drown Myself, Finally" leaving little room for facile comfort. And the album artwork, courtesy of photographer Aaron Munson, while visually stunning, offers no more reassurance, with images which convey a barren, icy desolation with furtive traces of light only occasionally breaking through.
Separate track titles notwithstanding, the album is best experienced as a continuous hour-long meditation. Wooley draws extensively on his own field recordings, so from time to time one might hear birds or, more frequently, the lapping of waves. But these sounds are heavily processed, so the overall effect is an uneasy one, suggesting there is nothing about nature which has not somehow been affected by human activity. The musicians first enter this soundworld tentatively, with Alcorn and Halvorson offering spartan ruminations which eventually take a more definitive shape over Sawyer's muted brushwork and Wooley's gauzy overlays. Unsettling textures and dark tensions predominate, with a noisy abrasiveness which takes hold ten minutes into the recording and only gradually subsides.
But although the recording is an admittedly forbidding one, luminous glimpses do appear episodically. Halvorson and Alcorn explore the full extent of their expansive range here, with fleeting lyrical threads which weave subtly through the music to soften its more acerbic edges. And the contributions of violist Mat Maneri and bassist Trevor Dunn also add dimensions to the music. Maneri's plaintive yearnings deepen the second portion of "I Am the Sea that Sings of Dust," while Dunn's visceral electric bass parts bring a rhythmic urgency to "A Catastrophic Legend," a piece which finds Wooley in a particularly sensitive mode in a tribute to his mentor Ron Miles.
We can also find some respite from the album's brooding temperament in its closing moments, in a reworked Swedish folk tune which serves as the basis for "Returning to Drown Myself." Juxtaposed with more of Wooley's electronically-distorted seascape recordings, it is a poignant reflection on the natural world and its ephemerality, with the trumpeter's most affecting playing on the record and an especially moving dialogue with the other three musicians. It serves as a vivid reminder that there is always beauty to be found, even in the darkest moments.
(…..); I Am the Sea that Sings of Dust; (…….); A Catastrophic Legend; (……..); Returning to Drown Myself, Finally;
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