Sprawling. Massive. Unapologetically ambitious. All over the musical map. But, somehow, not excessive. Furiously Dreaming is a two-CD set by percussionist / composer / musical visionary Nathan Hubbard and his 50-member (for this recording) Skeleton Key Orchestra. The leader or co-leader of a dozen or so different small ensembles playing everything from modern jazz to contemporary classical music to free improvisation to funky jazz-rock fusion, Hubbard takes all of thisplus spoken word and choral musicand spins it up into a frothy whirlwind on Furiously Dreaming. The result is surprisingly tight, and constrained in ways one wouldn't expect. Here, Hubbard's compositional and arranging style, like that of Satoko Fujii (whose music Hubbard's resembles), has a tangential and somewhat uncomfortable relationship to jazz, despite the primacy of improvisation. The music rocks and sways more than swings in the traditional sense. It's experimental, yet not harsh. Hubbard writes with his soloists in mind, and this proves to be a saving grace throughout the album's seven (out of eight, total) very lengthy tracks. Though there are passages of chaotic group improv, Furiously Dreaming is definitely not a Globe Unity Orchestra-styled free-jazz blowout. Nor is it one of those sterile contemporary classical conceptual exercises. It's really a super-diverse stylistic smorgasbord of sounds, all delivered with the sort of heat and light that suffused the large ensemble music of Sun Ra and Charles Mingus.
Hubbard is fascinated with diverse grooves and polyrhythms, unusual timbres, and the transitions between the different color fields he's juxtaposed within each piece. "Crows on the Roof" is a fine example of Hubbard's groove-centric composing. The piece opens with brooding, post-Apocalyptic horns over stalking electric bass, funky drums, distorted keys, and wailing electric saxophone. Imagine Miles Davis' Dark Magus band improvising a score to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. This breaks up and gives way to a tightly-composed "big band" section with Michael Dessen's acrobatic trombone out front. After Dessen's solo, the bottom falls out entirely for a sparse, aleatoric passage into which hand drums and soprano saxophone slowly build until Roger Aplon and Sister Rez chime in with their spoken word. It's an ever-shifting mobile of sound that simply doesn't let up.
By contrast, the first half of "Mirror Forgot" is dominated by free improvisation. Hubbard manages the scale of these interactions, which, at various times, engage nearly the entire orchestra or thin out into mini-features for one or two players (primarily saxophonist Andrew Pask) punctuated by orchestral stabs. Amidst all of this, there are intricate, composed passages and notable features for Hubbard and Curtis Glatter (on marimba and percussion), Scott Walton (on acoustic bass), and for the very jazzy trumpet of Kris Tiner. Startlingly different, "sleep:dream:silence" is a lovely through-composed piece for string sextet, plus acoustic guitars, vibes, marimba and bells; ostensibly a setting for both spoken word artists. "And We All Fall Down" returns to the world of overlapping chunky, fat grooves. Math-y funk and Latin feels predominate, though electronic beats and the frenetic turntable work of DJ Tenshun dominate the second half of the piece. Saxophonists Jason Robinson and Adnan Marquez, and electric bassist Harley Magsino lead a succession of remarkably fine solos.
The second CD is no less diverse, and may even be a little more experimental. The title track features The Valley of Discovery Chorus, though it's Hubbard's tightly conceived ensemble writing and lengthy solos by Derek Cannon and Pask that generate the most interest. There's also an unexpected sludge-rock coda tacked on to the end that could almost have evolved into a separate piece on its own. The first section of "Other Ideas" is full of detailed dissonances, minute spaces, odd timbral juxtapositions, and off-kilter rhythms worthy of a lost shred of the Frank Zappa canon. Ellen Weller's flute flits around most gracefully here. As the piece inevitably descends into darker and noisier places, we encounter an almost obscenely gurgling didgeridoo, some more choral vocals, and a lengthy passage of free improv + electronics before the Zappa-esque compositional motifs return. The back end of this piece features some remarkably noisy electronics by Jeff Kaiser.
"The Owl of Brittany Road (specter of the late late night)" is perhaps the most difficult and complex piece on the album, at least from a listening standpoint. Chaotic, dark, and replete with harsh electronics, standout solos by Tiner, Tom McNally and Dick McGuane jut out like strange illuminators amongst an otherwise impenetrable undergrowth. The piece ends memorably, with clattering scattershot percussion and spooky choral vocals. Dessen steps out once again on the super-funky opening section of "Skeleton Key Theme." The first half of this piece deals with funk, breakbeats and retro-sounding electronics in a manner reminiscent of Hubbard's excellent quartet The Scorpion Decides. After a brief, and very pretty, orchestral section, altoist David Borgo solos resourcefully, and at great length, over a variety of rhythmic / harmonic landscapes; from free to funk to Latin. Hilariously, it all resolves into the album's most swinging, most overtly jazzy sounds. Hubbard can't leave it at that, though. After a brief pause, a churchy-sounding choral passage punches in.
Furiously Dreaming is clearly a labor of love. Making money off of a project of this scale, with its completely uncompromising artistic stance, is almost inconceivable. And yet, here it is. And the world's truly better for it. A rare beast, indeed.
CD 1: Crows On The Roof; Mirror Forgot; sleep:dream:silence; And We All Fall
CD 2: Furiously Dreaming; Other Ideas; The Owl of Brittany Road (specter of the
late late night); Skeleton Key Theme.
Ellen Weller: soprano saxophone, Bb clarinet, flute, piccolo; David Borgo:
soprano and tenor saxophone, alto flute; Adnan Marquez: alto saxophone, flute,
electronics, engineer; Dick McGuane: alto and tenor saxophone, Bb clarinet;
Jason Robinson: tenor saxophone, Bb clarinet, alto flute, electronics; Andrew
Pask: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Derek Cannon, Kris Tiner: trumpet,
flugelhorn; Karl Soukup: trumpet, flugelhorn, piccolo trumpet; Sean Francis
Conway: trumpet, didgeridoo; Jeff Kaiser: quarter tone trumpet, electronics;
Kelley Elliott: horn; Michael Dessen, Dwight Dillon: trombone; Brandon Jagow:
bass trombone, electric bass; Ernesto Botello, Jonathan Piper: tuba; Nazo
Zakkak: piano + preparations, electric organ, pipe organ, synth; Rick Helzer, Bob
Weller: piano; Joe Bigham, Samuel Lopez, Tom McNally, Marcelo Radulovich:
electric guitar, electronics; Jon Garner: nylon string acoustic guitar, electric
guitar, electronics; Kristopher Apple, Gascia Ouzounian, Sunshine Vortigern:
violin; Carolyn Lechusza Aquallo, Sarah Paik: cello; Justin Grinnell: acoustic
bass, acoustic bass guitar, electric bass, electronics; Harley Magsino: acoustic
bass, electric bass + guitar, electronics; Scott Walton: acoustic bass, piano;
Marcos Fernandes, David Hurley: hand drums, percussion; Nate Atwood:
drumkit, handclaps, electronics; Jon Szanto: percussion, vibraphone; Curtis
Glatter: drumkit, percussion; Jeanette Kangas: drumkit, marimba; Nathan
Hubbard: conducting, drumkit, frame drum, electronics, samples, drum machine,
hand drums, percussion, mallets, piano, synth, wurlitzer, timpani, engineer, etc.;
Shadowfigure: drumkit, handclaps, drum loops, e-drums, sound design; DJ
Tenshun: turntables, electronics; Robert M: electronics; Nina Leilani: voice, tack
piano; Greg Buhlert, Christopher Given Harrison, Rafter Roberts, Molly
Whittaker: voice; Roger Aplon, Sister Rez: poetry; Steve Langdon: engineer;
Kirsten Callais: 2nd engineer; The Valley of Discovery Chorus: Kristopher Apple,
Nate Atwood, Joe Bigham, Greg Buhlert, David Borgo, Kirsten Callais, Sean
Francis Conway, Nina Leilani, Michael Dessen, Daniela Druhora, Kelley Elliott,
Suzanne Gage, Jon Garner, Justin Grinnell, Christopher Given Harrison, Rick
Helzer, Kelly Hubbard, Nathan Hubbard, Brandon Jagow, Jeanette Kangas, Steve
Langdon, Harley Magsino, Dick McGuane, Rafter Roberts, Jason Robinson, Scott
Walton, Ellen Weller, Molly Whittaker, Nazo Zakkak.