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Grassi/ Varner/ Horton/ Ulrich: Neo Neo

Derek Taylor By

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With a pair of notable recent releases the CIMP team has returned their attentions to improvising groups who are experimenting in chamber jazz structures and instrumentation. Several earlier releases in the label’s catalog have explored this musical terrain with great success and it’s wonderful to see more music in this vein being brought to light. The players here explore the harmonic possibilities afforded by brass, strings and percussion and each is an undisputed master on his instrument. Varner has almost single-handedly brought the French horn to prominence as a viable voice in creative improvised music. The date at hand affords him the ideal occasion to once again prove it’s worth in tandem with Horton in the front-line. Grassi and Ulrich are similarly primed to deliver the goods and the quartet sets its sights on a generous songbook featuring compositions from all four players.

The majority of pieces, given their number, are short affairs. A certain austerity (perhaps due to Varner’s presence) informs many of them and the players take full advantage of space and dynamics in their music. Grassi’s drums are the sonic definition of rolling thunder and he keep a tumbling polyrhythmic pulse for from which his partner’s organize frequent melodic and harmonic forays. One of the best examples of this relationship is the title piece where the drummer’s loose cadence and accents support agitated interjections by Ulrich’s sharply bowed cello and a garrulous debate between the horns. Grassi’s drums are also the fulcrum on “Meditation Sketch” providing a constantly shifting rhythmic floor for the melodic thrust of the piece played in unison by Horton and Varner. The three-part “Lopey” moves from the duo of Varner and Horton, to a trio without Grassi, to a resolution with full quartet all the while reveling in a whimsical New Orleans tailgate feel. In contrast, Horton’s “For Thomas Chapin,” a lush anthem dedicated to the deceased saxophonist, is one of the most moving pieces I’ve heard in a long time. It’s six-minute duration passes quickly, but captures a sense of loss combined with a celebration of life that stirs both memories and emotions.

Taken together this is an incredibly well rounded program of music. These players effectively demonstrate that creative improvised expression of depth and character can be fashioned from any combination of instruments. Their lesson reminds us that what matters most is not the instruments themselves, but the ingenuity, imagination and skill that is channeled through them by musicians.

Tracks:Carla Blake/ Hemoglobin/ For Thomas Chapin/ Genius Envy/ Neo Neo/ Mini for Thomas/ Spit It Out/ Northern Lights/ Space Ballad/ Meditation Sketch/ Louless/ Lopey Pt.1/ Lopey Pt. 2/ Lopey Pt. 3/ Unbearable Being of Lightness.

Players:Lou Grassi- drums; Tom Varner- French horn; Ron Horton- trumpet; Tomas Ulrich- cello.

Recorded: April 8 & 9, 1999, Rossie, NY.

CIMP recordings are available through North Country Distributors: http://www.cadencebuilding.com

Title: Neo Neo | Year Released: 2000 | Record Label: CIMP Records

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