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Ethan Philion: Gnosis


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Ethan Philion: Gnosis
When it comes to making memorable entrances, Ethan Philion is on a par with Seinfeld's Kramer. The Chicago bassist burst into the scene with Meditations on Mingus (Sunnyside Records, 2022), an audacious debut recording on which he arranged familiar selections and deep cuts from the towering jazz bassist Charles Mingus. On Gnosis, the forces are smaller and perhaps so is the ambition of Philion's concept. Yet from the very first notes of "The Boot," which begins with a shriek from trumpeter Russ Johnson and alto saxophonist Greg Ward, the chordless quartet announces that it means business.

Philion makes no secret of his admiration of Mingus, a player whose unruly energy animates the 58-minute recording and whose "What Love" is a highlight. Mingus recorded it only twice, both with his 1960 pianoless quartet with Ted Curson and Eric Dolphy, who were joined on the live recording from Antibes by tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, and it doesn't appear to have been covered since then. The extended elaboration and deconstruction of Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love" is sprawling and cinematic—a little episodic, too—but the form opens vast spaces for Johnson and Ward. The former is all over the horn, smearing notes and making Dolphy-esque register leaps, while Ward emphasizes the composition's roots in bebop. Philion's solo is alternately bravura and ruminative, but most striking is his hookup with drummer Dana Hall, who is Gnosis's most valuable player. Here as elsewhere, Hall's prodding, often nagging beat negotiates hairpin dynamics and speed changes with videogame ease.

Those tempo changes return on "Sheep Shank," which starts out in Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society territory, then crests and subsides like winter waves on Lake Michigan. Hall is a fearless surfer here, catching a figure of Johnson's then elaborating on it before handing it back to the trumpeter, a musical game of hot potato. What a shame that Hall, who has a teaching position at DePaul University, seldom leaves Chicago. The drummer is an active participant in the squabbling "Comment Section" where Johnson and Ward engage in a debate, first politely then with increasing aggression. Yet even the ballads on Gnosis burn with ardor. "Nostalgia" (another nod to Mingus?) surrounds a lyrical Ward solo beginning and ending with a rippling figure on which Philion imitates a kora or mbira . The title cut comes last, a simmering flamenco that would have sounded at home on Mingus' Tijuana Moods (RCA Records, 1962). After a bass solo by the leader that revels in Charlie Haden-style strummed cante hondo, the band builds to a boil in an extended tag with Ward shrieking out an impossibly sustained altissimo cry. Balancing freedom with formal rigor, Gnosis asserts with electrifying confidence that Ethan Philion has crashed through the sophomore slump.

Track Listing

The Boot; What Love; Sheep Shank; Nostalgia; Comment Section; Gnosis.


Album information

Title: Gnosis | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records



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