The music of Eric Satie may well be some of the most malleable and adaptable works ever composed. This could be partly due to the fact that Satie himself stood well outside of the musical mainstream of his time, thus his compositions are comparatively unencumbered by the stylistic baggage of his era. Satie was avant-garde before the term was coined, and is considered by many to be a precursor to the Minimalists and to the 20th Century Serialist composers such as Anton VonWebern, Arnold Schoenberg, and Alban Berg. Yet, Satie's music-like the best jazz-has great warmth and humanity. Multi- reed artist Dan Willis is something of a Satie scholar whose study of the late 19th / early 20th Century French composer has been ongoing since the mid-2000s. On this, Willis' third collection of modern-day interpretations of Satie's compositions, particular attention is paid to the Gnossiennes. On The Satie Project II, we have Gnossiennes 2 through 7; a set of slow dances, some meant to be played "with conviction... and a rigorous sadness." Numbers 1 through 3 were composed in the early 1890s and 1893, and were initially piano solos written without bar lines or time signatures. Gnossiennes 4 through 7 weren't published until 1968 though they were written between 1889 and 1897. Gnossienne #4 is the most substantial and interesting, while #7 was originally intended as incidental music for a theater piece.
On The Satie Project II, Willis leaves no stylistic stone unturned; he seems especially enamored of early 70s fusiony sounds, though this album is hardly a fusion album in the normal sense of the word. Opening with an orchestral fluorish, "Gnossienne #7" quickly takes on an aggressive drum'n'bass feel thanks to John Hollenbeck's deft polyrhythmic kit work, Pete McCann's wah-wah guitar and Ron Oswanski's percolating Wurlitzer. Gnossienne #6 gets a jaunty treatment with a two-beat rhythm and a fine solo by bassist Kermit Driscoll. Gnossienne #4 and #5 stay more-or-less true to Satie's compositional intent, and largely lack improvisation. McCann's watery guitar and Willis' English horn, along with the spooky, reverb-rich production impart a ghostly, mournful, ECM-ish lilt to both pieces. The lovely "Gnossienne #2" also has an elegiac ECM-influenced feel before it finds a bluesy backbeat behind the leader's soulful tenor. Oswanski's accordion work here recalls Dino Saluzzi's partnership with Enrico Rava. By contrast, "Gnossienne #3" takes on a Gypsy-jazz feel with additional strangeness provided by the addition of erhu to the front line, and an uncredited spoken word recitation.
"Pieces Froides" are also well-represented on The Satie Project II. These solo piano pieces were written in 1897 and, with their gentle dissonances and spare melodies, have much the same charm of Satie's better known Gymnopedies. Willis' brief readings of these leave no doubt as to Satie's influence on the Minimalists. The lush 21st Century production and subtle use of electronics are reminiscent of Wim Mertens' work with the band Soft Verdict during the 1980s. "Vexations" gets three remarkably different interpretations. The first, "Vexations Alternate 1," dresses up the Satie classic in raucous Knitting Factory jazz-thrash. "Vexations Alternate 2" continues in the same vein, spiraling inevitably towards chaos with McCann's distorted guitar and Hollenbeck's dynamic drums leading the way. The final interpretation-and the album's closing track-opens with a more-or-less straight reading, though things slowly begin to go awry as Willis picks up the EWI and Hollenbeck's transgressive drums gather steam. Unexpectedly, the music careens towards a dark, dissonant brand of jazz-rock with McCann, Oswanski's Larry Young-inspired organ and Willis' tenor out front. That Willis was able to do so much with Satie's music is more than just a monumental act of scholarship. Willis went way beyond just re- arranging the great composer's music by creating something beautiful, inspired and new, while staying true to Satie's spirit and intent. This is the ultimate act of musical understanding. The Satie Project II is a truly innovative statement; amazing if one considers that the music was written over 100 years ago.
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