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The constituent parts of guitarist Garrison Fewell's Variable Density Sound Orchestra shifted gradually between its eponymous inception (Creative Nation, 2008) and sophomore effort on Sound Particle 47 (Creative Nation, 2010). Inevitably there will be further changes in the future if the unit continues, as both trumpeter Roy Campbell and reedman John Tchicai have passed on since the session which yielded Evolving Strategies in January 2012. Such losses will make a big difference as the group has developed a distinctive ethos built upon elegant writing which encourage garrulous interplay and improvisation with a personal stamp. That's all the more surprising as the charts stem from the pens of not only the leader but also Tchicai and trombonist Steve Swell.
Two takes of Swell's Mystical Realities bookend the proceedings. In the liners, Fewell explains that the quality of the solos demanded that both cuts be included, and it's easy to hear the truth in that statement, notably in the longer second version where both the author and Tchicai sound particularly inspired and expressive. Between times, a variety of compositional gambits generate consistently worthwhile results. Both Fewell's title cut and its near relative "Revolving Strategies" were created by giving each player a set of themes, from which they could select five. It was up to each player whether to repeat and how to transition between themes. Avoiding any hint of artifice, both versions revel in a conversational pointillism which nonetheless produces a unified whole, lyrically calm on the former, more emphatic and chatty on the latter.
By contrast Tchicai's "Return and Breathe" features recognizable soloists, each given a different settings. It moves between sparse unhurried dialogue, an intricate hocketed march and a loping riff, over which the reedman spins insistent soulful variations. He also looms large on "Voyage from Ra," blowing an impassioned incantation against choppy backing, before switching to flute for a poised conclusion. Throughout the generous and adventurous program, the leader's cool intelligence and full jazzy tone add graceful counterpoint which not only complements whoever stands center stage but also provides the cohesion which glues everything together.
Track Listing: Mystical Realities; Evolving Strategies; Return and Breathe; Thoughts for Dixon; Voyage from Ra; Revolving Strategies; Heart is Only a Part; Mystical Realities: Aftermath.
Personnel: Garrison Fewell: guitar, violin bow; bottleneck slide; John Tchicai: tenor saxophone, flute; Roy Campbell Jr: trumpet; pocket trumpet, flugelhorn, flute; Steve Swell: trombone; Dmitry Ishenko: bass; Reggie Nicholson: drums.
As a songwriter and vocalist, I love jazz for the experience of being in the center of intense creativity. It is the most potent form of music for keeping the artist and the audience in the 'now. Being in the moment is essential for humans, and we need help in learning how to do that. As a songwriter, I need the depth of musicality that jazz voicings can give my stories. My songs seem light and whimsical, but the message is not.
I met my main collaborator, Mark Fitzgibbon, at one of his gigs. I needed to do my first original album, and his playing was masterful, robust, and beautiful. At the time, I didn't realize how suited we were as a team. We're onto our 4rth album together.
My advice to new listeners is to listen to a really clear and simple version of a song so you can then hear what the musicians are doing and enjoy their creativity and musicality. Also, you have to see jazz live to appreciate it fully. You'll never feel it the same way listening to a CD or online. You need the vibration to go through your body to really get it!
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