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Andrew Rathbun: The Idea of North

Ian Patterson By

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What effect does solitude have on a person? How can one grow as a result of being alone? These questions provoke a musical response from saxophonist, Andrew Rathbun, though the roots of his inspiration for this music lie over forty years ago. In 1967, legendary concert pianist Glenn Gould produced a radio documentary called "The Idea of North" where simultaneously played voices narrated five people's views on Northern Canada. Gould called this experiment "contrapuntal radio," an extension of his own musical voice and an exploration of the theme of solitude, a state which he needed creatively and craved personally. In his own way, New York-based Rathbun's six compositions explore the vast expanses of his native Canada, translating the extremes of geography, climate, and the idea of solitude into musical narratives of contrasting mood.

Gould, by his own admission, was a failed composer, a charge however, which could not be leveled at Rathbun. The six pieces are as structurally challenging as they are melodically pleasing, and the tender rendition of saxophonist Wayne Shorter's beautiful ballad "Teru" can be seen in the wider context of Rathbun's approach to music as a meeting of like minds. Like Shorter—whether on tenor or soprano—Rathbun embarks on absorbing excursions of cerebral design and emotive import. Trumpeter Taylor Haskins, guitarist Nate Radley and pianist Frank Carlberg are no less impressive, but much of the music's appeal lies in the imaginative harmonic and contrapuntal lines that weave in and out of the ongoing narrative.

The leader's canny orchestration stands out on the expansive "Across the Country," which opens with a delightful bass line from the ever-inventive Jay Anderson, who forms an intuitive rhythm section with drummer Michael Sarin and Carlberg. Significant support also comes from Radley, who excels equally in the role of deft accompanist. Rathbun and Radley unravel solos of great fluidity and momentum either side of the richly harmonic collective voice which carries the tune's melody. Delightful too, is the pairing of soprano and muted trumpet against razor-sharp guitar lines on the vaguely melancholic "December."

There are striking dynamics at play within the avant-garde "Harsh"; a slightly jarring ambience where nervy brass, chattering bass and choppy piano are punctuated by a sinister motif. The music becomes gradually more urgent, spurred by Carlberg, as the sextet flirts with swing of a restless nature. "Rockies" sounds like an expansion on these ideas, dark and brooding, though with an inescapable walking rhythm over which the front line instruments carve out taut solos, laden with tension.

In contrast, lilting soprano, lyrical bass and gently cascading piano illuminate 18th century German composer Christoph Gluck's lovely "Minuet and Dance of the Blessed Spirit, while "Arctic" is a surprisingly warm-toned, straight-ahead piece with a strong melodic core to close the disc.

Rathbun's music is intellectually challenging and yet immediately accessible. Rathbun enjoys outstanding support from his musicians, but if solitude—even as an abstract idea—serves up music this satisfying, then maybe he should spend more time alone in his special place.

Track Listing: Echoes; Harsh; Across The Country; December; Teru; Rockies; Minuet and Dance of the Blessed Spirits; Arctic.

Personnel: Andrew Rathbun: saxophones; Taylor Haskins: trumpet; Nate Radley: guitar; Frank Carlberg: piano, electric piano; Jay Anderson: bass; Michael Sarin: drums.

Title: The Idea of North | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: SteepleChase Records

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