Woodlander is an intriguing jazz combo out of Europe dedicated to breathing life into the original compositions of its founder, Swiss pianist Luzius Schuler. A trio marked by its sparseness, Woodlander is rounded off with trumpeter Mats Spillmann and drummer Jonas Ruther, both of whom recently collaborated with Schuler on Lucerne Jazz Orchestra
(QFTF) (Schuler and Ruther performed; Spillmann contributed a composition). Given the existing connections between these musicians, the persisting synergy that drives Calvins Toboggan
should come as no surprise. This sense of oneness combined with vivid compositions and resourceful interplay makes for a strong debut that neatly straddles the line dividing accessibility from the avant-garde.
The elegant opener "Auren" manifests Schuler's compositional prowess through its outwardly impulsive trajectory. Beginning with a dynamic drum pattern that supports a graceful melody, Schuler's opulent harmonic progression erodes all rhythmic sense down to a wash of cymbals, eventually terminating with the resonant hum of piano and trumpet. Similarly, the hard-driving pulse of "Flash Da Trash" repeatedly gives way to brooding, ethereal passages before reclaiming its stride. These compositions are living, fluid pieces of music that wallow in states of uncertainty, but never fail to conclude with a sense of completion.
"Advancement" is a standout track that exhibits Woodlander's penchant for the freer realms of jazz in terms of compositional structure along with playing style. Much like Miles Davis
' "Nefertiti," the piece is uniquely constructed to allow the drummer to solo over the central theme. In the case of "Advancement," the first bout of vehement strikes by Ruther brazenly pierces through an apprehensive melody. This unexpected disruption not only shocks the ear, but also shocks the other instruments: Spillmann's vibrato becomes uncontrolled and Schuler borders on jabbing the keys as opposed to his usual tapping. Not as experimental, but still unbridled throughout, "Fahrradfahren" is a jovial number that edges towards an avant-gardist's conception of a samba, but perhaps best demonstrates the band's humor-infused soloing.
There are also moments of great beauty embedded in this album, namely "Nach am Schlaf" and "Harmoniumlied." The former is a meditative ballad that finds Spillmann utilizing a mute to fabricate a theme over a circuitous sequence of melancholy chords. Spillmann then abandons the mute for clear, passionate soloing before the piece truly unfurls with a climactic escalation of intensity. Like the title implies, Schuler employs a pump organ on "Harmoniumlied," adding a radically new timbre to the set, but one that is ultimately ideal for the composition's classical aura.
Schuler, Spillmann, and Ruther under the moniker Woodlander brilliantly exploit their scant instrumentation, managing to hit every level on a broad range of sonic pleasure. Simply put, Calvins Toboggan
is the product of perceptive musicians who aren't averse to the vulnerable nature of space.