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Tom Varner: Martian Heartache

Glenn Astarita By

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Released by Soul Note in 1997, “Martian Heartache” is a poignant and multifaceted project led by Tom Varner who is perhaps the preeminent French Hornist in jazz. Here, Varner gets optimum support from some of New York City’s finest.

All compositions are by Varner. “Keep It Up” is a Funk-R&B induced thriller, which evolves into a hard driving swing romp. The brilliant sax work from young titan’s Ellery Eskelin (tenor) and Ed Jackson (alto) provide the soulful heartbeat as Varner’s French Horn insinuates a “big sound” with that full-bodied tone. Varner’s fluent and dexterous fingering is amazing for such a difficult instrument. Ellery Eskelin’s fervent and antagonistic phrasing within this framework conjures up notions of an improbable meeting between Albert Ayler and the “godfather of soul”, James Brown. “Keep It Up” reminds us of the relationships among seemingly dissimilar genres. “Martian Affirmation” is a quirky and bouncy Bop number. Bassist Drew Gress takes a fine solo on the upright while drummer Tom Rainey closes with a swing beat that rekindles memories of the late Philly Joe Jones. “Isaac Has A Vision on the Subway” showcases Varner’s impossible chops. The unit now sounds like a little-Big Band. Clever charts coupled with superb rhythmic accompaniment prevail as this tune coasts and changes gears while the theme is restated in spurts. “Tough Luck” is portrayed in vivid fashion as the twin Saxophones of Eskelin and Jackson provide contrast to Varner’s straight ahead, fleet phrasing. The purposefully lazy Sax choruses suggest “Sorry for your misfortunes pal, things will get better”. “Eva Etc” contains a muscular backbeat and features some crafty dynamics from guitarist Pete McCann. The moody horn arrangements segue into some entertaining Funk interplay. “Small Cry Big Laugh” is a series of vignettes that display shades of Ellington and Mingus while the rest is left to your imagination.

“Martian Heartache” covers lots of territory. It is apparent that this gang was having loads of fun in the process and the entertainment factor rates a perfect 10! Varner is an amazing musician who also possesses a fertile imagination. The compositions have staying power and like the proverbial fine wine, get better with age. Highly Recommended!


Title: Martian Heartache | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Soul Note


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