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John Heward Trio: Let Them Pass (Laissez-passer)

John Kelman By

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Spontaneous composition, as opposed to free improvisation, finds a group of musicians working towards creating some kind of recognizable construct; sometimes, in fact, as in the case of the title track from Marilyn Crispell's '01 release, Amaryllis , what begins as a free improvisation becomes an actual piece with a thematic form that, in this case, Crispell continues to perform in concert to this day. But purely free improvisation has no such lofty goal. Its purpose, rather, is to create a mood, a texture, an ambience. Some would consider spontaneous composition the riskier proposition, but to these ears free improvisation is more of a challenge, at least with respect to asserting musical differentiation and instrumental capability. Once you make the leap that the musicians involved are capable players, then the difficulty comes in hearing what makes one particular group of players sound different than another, especially when the attitude, as is often the case, is one of sheer intensity and angst.

Woodwind multi-instrumentalist Joe Giardullo, bassist Mike Bisio and drummer John Heward, who is the nominal leader of this trio, got together one day in May of '02 to record a series of explorations with the simple premise of reflection on their parents' and grandparents' immigration to Canada and the United States. The result, Let Them Pass , which refers to the immigrants arriving with little more than a "Laissez-passer" pass in their pockets, is a collection of seven numbered improvisations that create differentiation through instrumental variation and a lineage to known forms that are more tips of the hat than serious homage.

The first two pieces are intense workouts, with Giardullo utilizing extended techniques on tenor saxophone, clearly his main axe, and then piccolo. Bisio and Heward create a tempestuous background that, for all its magnitude, somehow comes across as static and unmoving. "Let Them Pass Three" changes the mood, however, with obscure references to the blues. Giardullo is again on tenor, and the piece starts spaciously but still expressionistic, with Bisio ultimately creating an ostinato bass figure that gives the piece some form. "Let Them Pass Four," with Giardullo on bass clarinet, is more abstract, with the trio alluding to their Middle Eastern and Eastern European lineage. More enigmatic still is "Let Them Pass Six," with Bisio creating broad strokes on arco bass alongside Giardullo's darker-hued alto flute.

By incorporating a variety of influences and historical perspectives, Heward and his trio take what could be just another free session and give it some meat and some clear distinction. While this kind of thing is clearly not for everyone, those who like to walk on the wilder side of free exploration will find much to like about Let Them Pass. The trio clearly understands how to pace a set, and by incorporating unquestionably obscured references, create a work that has enough variation to maintain interest throughout.

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