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Dan Willis: The Voice of a Tone Poet

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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There is an ancient Latin aphorism that was often central to a debate among philosophers discussing art. The debate itself began earlier than the time of Augustan Rome, and over time raged on, occupying the philosophers of Greece as much as it occupied the classicists. It addressed the question of whether poetry was a gift of nature or a product of conscious art or training. The aphorism came from 16th Century Venetian writer Coelius Rhodigenus, who wrote a chapter in his discourse, Lectiones Antiquae, entitled "An poeta nascitur, orator fiat, sicut receptum vulgo est..." The phrase later came to be crystallized as "poeta nascitur non fit," which essentially was a result of the ancient debate. The debaters may as well have been talking of music.

Unfortunately in the world of today, when most art has been so inexorably compromised by commerce, the very question may be so risqué as to draw the ire of music professors everywhere on earth. However, when you first turn on to the music of an artist of the caliber of multi-reed master Dan Willis and hear how mystically and magically oceans of sound flow through him, it may define the side of the debate where your sentiments lie. In answering the question, Willis himself might demur. He has, after all, attended the Eastman School of Music, but no one could have taught him how to fashion a palette that explores the myriad tones of notes—their timbres. The Eastman School may have taught him how to read the notes on a sheet of music, but no one could have taught him how to set them in a sequence as right as rain, as beguiling as the sequence of notes that bubble and tumble through his magnificent album, Velvet Gentlemen (Omni-Tone, 2006).

The album was genre-breaking. It was Inspired by the early late 19th century/early 20th century French pianist and composer Erik Satie, whose compositions were precursors of serialist and minimalist music, and the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, who made foundational contributions to quantum mechanics and was responsible for the Uncertainty Principle of Quantum Theory. Transposing the thought, word and deed of these seminal figures in Western culture upon the landscape of contemporary music, Willis was able to give their ideas wings, flying in the face of adversity to create a wholly mesmerizing stream of new music, cast in the rarefied idiom of jazz.

Willis was eminently qualified to make this album. He was a born experimentalist, with two earlier albums as a leader to prove it. The first was released by the small label Skyward Records in 1997. This was followed by the equally courageous album Hand to Mouth (A-Records, NL, 2001). But more than that, Willis had paid his dues. Years of polishing his chops in small clubs and slogging it out in New York City had meant that Willis had played in almost every musical situation. Willis played on multiple Broadway cast recordings and is on the cast of the popular show Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. On television the woodwind specialist has been heard on several commercials, including the animated children's series The Backyardigans). In cinema Willis has contributed to a selection of film scores and even made an appearance in the feature Mona Lisa Smile.

"My experiences with the late, great tenor saxophonist and EWI specialist, Michael Brecker... now that was really something... a spectacular, quite remarkable school of thought," he said in April of 2010. "But that would be a whole other interview, would it not?" he opined. Perhaps Willis would have grown exponentially when he toured Japan with Brecker, but he also grows with every performance with David Chesky's chamber group, Area 21, as well as with his experiences playing a completely different role—that of a double-reed player (on the Armenian duduk and zurna, which he played at the world premiere of Strophes, composed and conducted by Yakov Kozlov). Then there is the extraordinary John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, of which Willis is a charter member of and has, in a sense shared in the Grammy nomination that Hollenbeck received for Eternal Interlude (Sunnyside Records, 2009).


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