Long considered one of the most innovative and idiosyncratic trumpeters in the improvised music community, Nate Wooley
has for many years astonished listeners with his formidable technique and broad-minded vision. Nowhere is this more evident than in his Seven Storey Mountain
series, a sequence of recordings going back to 2007 that is now in its sixth iteration. With an ever-expanding cast of associates who share Wooley's iconoclasm, this is improvised music of a distinctive and ambitious character, determined to bridge the worlds of the religious and the secular and to explore music's ability to bring catharsis and ecstatic release (or what Wooley calls "ecstaticism") to both its creators and its listeners.
Although Trappist monk Thomas Merton's 1948 autobiography provides both the title and source of inspiration for Wooley's project, he insists that it is not a conventionally religious undertaking. Instead, he seems to see it as an opportunity to pursue elements of self-striving and self-realization (or what he calls "self-as-spirit") that can only be adequately explored through music that seeks some level of creative transcendence. Wooley's liner notes reference Ralph Waldo Emerson as a forerunner of what he ultimately wants to call "a secular practice of self-questioning and evolution." Even so, it is striking how much of Seven Storey Mountain VI
relies deeply on a musical vocabulary heavily indebted to the Western spiritual tradition. From the use of a 21-member, all-female choir at the opening and closing of the piece (brilliantly arranged by Wooley and Megan Schubert
), to the liberal use of organ at crucial moments in its development, and finally to its original performance at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Manhattan in November, 2019, the music finds much of its power through its dialogue with a musical legacy that it never leaves entirely behind.
The piece also exudes an overt resilience and defiance, using folk singer Peggy Seeger's 1979 song "Reclaim the Night" as a reference point. With its stirring lament against sexism and gendered violence, its message seems as relevant now as when it was first recorded, and Wooley's ability to weave it into the fabric of the music lends a marked poignancy to the music's cathartic energy.
In its 45-minute, sweeping trajectory, the piece utilizes a steady unfolding of themes and layering of instrumentation. There is an aggregative quality to each performance of Seven Storey Mountain
, due not only to recurring personnel such as drummer Chris Corsano
and violinist C. Spencer Yeh
but also to Wooley's extensive use of tape loops from previous recordings. And the new additions are invaluable also: pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn
provides rich texture and atmosphere throughout the recording, while electric guitarists Ava Mendoza
and Julien Desprez
deliver awe-inspiring firepower to the piece's most fervid moments, and keyboardists Isabelle O'Connell
and Emily Manzo
announce the music's key motifs.
But the music's most memorable aspect is undoubtedly the choir which bookends the piece. From the stark beauty of its opening wordless humming to its closing reiteration of Seeger's lyrics culminating in a fierce chant, "You Can't Scare Me," the collective power of Wooley's "ecstaticism" is directed toward the potential for meaningful social change. The artist's commitment to contribute his royalties to the National Council Against Domestic Violence makes this connection emphatically.
Seven Storey Mountain VI.