In the notes to The Uncle Wiggly Suite, composer Billy Fox tells the story of the genesis of the thematic kernel that makes up the connecting thread that runs through the pieces in this suite. This fine music lives in cracks between many things: composition vs. improvisation, accessibility vs. pure expression, mainstream vs. avant-garde, consciousness vs. the unconscious and the rational vs. the irrational.
Taking a compositional technique suggestion to the extreme, Fox recorded himself noodling at the keyboard as he drifted in and out of the edges of sleep. As he relates, most of it was "totally worthless...except for the series of notes that became the title track of this suite."
This "melody" is played out of time (as it was recorded) in the first track with the instruments not even trying to play together, making their entrances ragged. Played over very sharp cymbal work by John O'Brien and driving bass by Mark Dresser, this theme sticks in the mind, and has a spooky resemblance to a track from David Borgo's Reverence For Uncertainty.
It is no surprise that "Uncle Wiggly" is placed first, because it is almost fourteen minutes of non-stop playing that manages to be very tight post-bop while constantly threatening to break down into the atonality of the theme, as very good solos strain against the confines of the bass and drums. It's a killer track, well played, and quite exciting.
The subsequent tracks have more or less clear links to the original melodic fragment that tie together the suite. In the notes, Fox details some these relationships, saying further that he found harmonic and melodic patterns he never intended, concluding that creation can come from conscious decisions or semi-conscious ramblings.
The origin of the music is very interesting, as is the theory of creativity, but in the end, the only thing that matters is whether the music engages the listener, which The Uncle Wiggly Suite most certainly does.
It is hard to tell where the line between composition/arrangement and improvisation lies, which is always a good sign, and the musicians (a main sextet augmented by six others on different tracks) really dig in and seem to be having a very good time.
Many different musical influences are apparent including a New Orleans feel on "Do the Wiggle," the quasi straight-ahead "Uncle Wiggly," the light Latin feel of "The Ghost of Col. Cobb," the pretty waltz ballad "Eyeball Eyeball" and a lot of humor. The pacing of the album is also very good.
Fox's music is a very enticing mix of the accessible and the quirky, making the formal elements an extra bonus. The feel of the familiar combined with constant surprises is very enticing and enables Uncle Wiggly to give listening pleasure many times.
Uncle Wiggly; D-D-Dribble; Guzzle; Nasturtium; Eyeball Eyeball; The Ghost of Col. Cobb; Do the Wiggle; Stories; Kooky Spooks; Nighty Night.
Mark Dresser: bass (1,2,3,5,7,9); Deanna Witkowski: piano (1,2,5,7,9,10); John Savage: alto saxophone (1,5,7), flute (2,3); Gary Pickard: tenor saxophone (1,5,7), soprano saxophone (3); Percy Pursglove: trumpet (1,5,7,9); John O'Brien: drums (1,5,7,9); Christopher Hoffman: cello (3,6); Paul Faatz: clarinet, bass clarinet (3), baritone saxophone (4); Arun Luthra: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone (4); Skye Steele: violin (6); Scott Schaefer: bass (6); Danny Katz: shamisen (6); Billy Fox: congas, triangle (4).