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Matt Holman: The Tenth Muse

Matthew Aquiline By

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New York City-based trumpeter and composer Matt Holman cut his teeth performing and recording with distinguished musicians such as Fred Hersch, John Hollenbeck, and Darcy James Argue before displaying his personal aesthetic of atmospheric chamber jazz with his debut album When Flooded in 2013. More recently, Holman found inspiration scouring the annals of history, extracting celebrated relics potent and stimulating enough to constitute the groundwork of his sophomore follow-up—2,500- year-old-plus relics to be precise.

"What kind of ancient artifacts are we taking about here?" you may ask. "Fossils? Art? Coins? That one floppy disk that always seems to elude disposal?"

Interestingly enough, the answer lies in the realm of ancient Greek literature—specifically, the surviving fragments of renowned lyrist Sappho's poetry. Although the passage of time has abraded most of her work (only one poem exists in its entirety), the evocative language remaining in Sappho's disjointed musings on the human psyche seems immortal. Galvanized by the elusive eloquence of her fragmented love poetry, Holman collected 16 chamber jazz pieces, each a musical rendering of a Sappho fragment, to form The Tenth Muse (a title given to Sappho by Plato).

In a coalescence of the ancient and modern, Holman recruited a cunning and perceptive group consisting of multi-instrumentalist Sam Sadigursky, vibraphonist Chris Dingman, and pianist Bobby Avey to bring his compositions to life. The music mirrors the fragmentary nature of the poetry (all fragments are printed in the CD booklet as translated by Anne Carson) while simultaneously exploiting its incompleteness as an offering of compositional and interpretational freedom. Whereas readers and scholars inevitably attempt to fill-in-the- blanks through word association and guesswork, Holman is in the unique position to fabricate an evolving sonic aura around these words that can spur unforeseen explanations from the listener's perspective.

However, bypassing all these admittedly pseudo-intellectual abstractions reveals one simple fact: this music is beautiful. "Fragment 104b" ("of all stars the most beautiful") portrays the text's mystical undertones with a minimalist piano-vibes duet prior to mingling horns navigating a meandering course to a full-bodied exultation. "Fragment 36" ("I long and seek after") is ravishing, expanding upon sweeping textures that stabilize an equilibrium between tension and resolution. It seems as though Holman has pinpointed a sweet spot that evenly partitions the academic and emotive sides of jazz; as complex as some of these compositions are, the palette of emotion they emit successfully overshadows any super technical idiosyncrasies that would confuse the average listener.

A clever addition to this already-engrossing album is Holman's decision to disperse four tracks of pure improvisation between composed pieces—one for each player/instrument. Along with preserving the album's dichotomy between improvisation and structure, these short, pensive performances provide the listener with the musician's raw, impulsive reactions to their given fragment.

Perhaps the most literal musical translation of this fragmental poetry is realized on "Fragment 29a." Anne Carson's translation uncovers an abstract, yet intriguing phrase: "deep sound" (quite jazzy for c. 620-570 B.C., huh?). Holman illustrates this expression through a shape-shifting sonic landscape propelled by sporadic piano jabs that are softened with Dingman's understated vibraphone playing. A weary melody then gains vigor as it advances, climaxing in a moment of utter clarity as Holman and Sadigursky's horns link.

Truth be told, these examples barely scratch the surface; the emotional and musical breadth of The Tenth Muse is immense and will leave one wallowing in a state of euphoric rapture. Reading these enduring fragments while immersed in Holman's ethereal compositions makes for a truly special experience that seamlessly connects the past with the present, reiterating the fact that human nature, at its foundation, is largely unchanging.

Track Listing: Fragment 104b; Fragment 147; Fragment 24a,c,d; Fragment 120; Fragment 36; Fragment 29a; Fragment 67a; Fragment 168b; Fragment 4; Fragment 34; Fragment 38; Fragment 32; Fragment 18; Fragment 26; Fragment 63; Fragment 88a,b.

Personnel: Matt Holman: trumpet, flugelhorn; Sam Sadigursky: soprano sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto flute, flute; Chris Dingman: vibraphone; Bobby Avey: piano.

Title: The Tenth Muse | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: New Focus Recordings


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