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Neil Welch: Boxwork

Bruce Lindsay By

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Adjectives like "extraordinary" or "stunning" are overused epithets these days, their currency diminished. Such a shame, because Boxwork, from Washington State saxophonist Neil Welch, is stunning and extraordinary—not in the devalued contemporary sense of "quite interesting" but in the good, old-fashioned sense. From its beautifully handcrafted packaging to Welch's handwritten notes to the music itself, Boxwork is a lovingly produced artifact, a truly creative mix of artistic endeavors.

The album's genesis is itself extraordinary. In mid-2009, Welch and his wife embarked on a three-month, 18,000 mile journey across the United States and Canada during which, as he describes it, the saxophonist "quietly began to reinvent" his playing. On their return they moved to an isolated home in the woods on Whidbey Island, where Welch recorded the improvisations that form Boxwork at the end of that year.

Apparently Welch recorded each piece on a single saxophone, without the assistance of any other instruments or musicians. He seems like an honest kind of guy, so let's accept this as a statement of fact. So why does "Knots, Parcels, Wire" sound like a saxophone quartet—baritone, tenor, alto and soprano in unison? How come "2:c" seemingly combines the saxophone with percussion and a musical saw? Why does "Spoken" sound more like a marimba solo than a tenor sax number? It's all down to Welch's command of the saxophone and a respect for the instrument that leads to an exploration of its sonic possibilities not only as something to be blown into, but also as something that can be hit, sung into, or screamed down.

Welch combines these feats of technical skill with a musical sensibility that enables him to craft fascinating sounds. Sometimes uncomfortable, as with "Knots, Parcels, Wire," which racks up the tension until it's almost at breaking point. Occasionally very challenging, as on parts of "Black Sequence," where Welch sounds like he's about to explode. At times, very beautiful, with the languid grace of "Organdy" and "For Ann"—the album's most straightforward saxophone piece—a delight. On "Spoken," Welch uses the instrument's keys to create percussive sounds that really do mimic a conversation. "Alarm:" is an odd yet pretty mix of Welch's breathy tenor and wordless vocalizing. Welch is also adept at using repeated short phrases, creating the hypnotic, meditative, "Point and Line" and "Rothko."

Boxwork is a musical gem. Describing the album as fifteen solo saxophone improvisations may be factually accurate but doesn't come close to encapsulating the range and imagination of Welch's work. The limited edition CD package adds tactile and visual pleasures to the aural pleasures of Welch's music, further enhancing the impact and joy of his heartfelt improvisations.

Track Listing: 2:c; Black Hills; Outer Rounds; Black Sequence; Piecemeal; Point and Line; Flow; Spoken; Knots, Parcels, Wire; Organdy; Siren; :Alarm; Rothko; For Ann; Alarm:.

Personnel: Neil Welch: saxophone.

Title: Boxwork | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: Table and Chairs Music

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