It's hard not to like a band that calls itself "Velvet Gentlemen, even before learning that the moniker derives from a nickname given to the velvet-clad composer Erik Satie by children in his Parisian neighborhood. It's similarly easy to appreciate the sound of the compositions and arrangements on this record even before knowing that they are inspired by Satie's idiosyncratic music. Willis sees Satie not as a decorative impressionist composer, but as a proto-serialist, and accordingly draws upon some of the techniques of the twelve-tone classical school.
Velvet Gentlemen is pretty high-concept: not only is there the multilayered Satie connection, there is also a running theme related to quantum physics. (Willis notes that Wayne Shorter is another saxophonist with an interest in this topic.) Several of the song titles sound like they could be chapters in a Stephen Hawking book: "Many Worlds Theory, "Closed Loops in Time, "Grandparent Paradox.
The overall sound of the record, while it is enriched by a knowledge of these conceptual dimensions, is nevertheless readily approachable without it. And that sound is, well, a velvety one, overlaid with sumptuousness. The velvety sound derives in part from the multiple instruments Willis plays in addition to tenor and soprano sax: oboe, English horn, the Armenian duduk and others. Velvety too are the rich ensemble arrangements. In this respect the record is a close cousin to Christophe dal Sasso and Dave Liebman's Exploration (Nocturne, 2006), also marked by rigorously innovative arrangingthe common ancestor of both records is twelve-tone serialism. (That, and the Fender Rhodes.)
At times, in fact, the sound approaches, oddly and unintentionally, the lush jazz electronica of Ilhan Ersahin's Our Theory (Nublu, 2006). This is especially on "Place of Enlightenment, where John Hollenbeck's drumming sounds uncannily like an up-tempo dance beat. Hollenbeck, here and on "Gentle Soul, sometimes sounds like he's playing with brushes even when he's not. (As opposed to fellow drummer Jim Black, for example, who can sound like he's playing with mallets even when he is using brushes.) It's all part of the velvety veneer, I suppose.
Willis's saxophone playing echoes the energetic style of the New York '70s loft scene: rapid-fire, questing, veering toward atonality; in this velvety context, it's a successful sound. Pete McCann, for his part, has a bag of many guitar tricks and a knack for always pulling out the trick that sounds, at first blush, all wrong (like his wah-wah funk of "Many Worlds Theory or his synthy intervention on "Place of Enlightenment ): he is either an insensitive buffoon or an iconoclastic visionaryit's hard to tell, but I'm leaning toward the latter interpretation.
With the possible exception of McCann, the solo voices sometimes fail to burst through the velvetiness; but the strong compositions and arrangingthe very velvetiness itselfleave a lasting impression.
Many Worlds Theory; Nothing is Real; Place of Enlightenment; Door to Yesterday; Velvet Gentlemen; Closed Loops in Time; I
Dan Willis: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, oboe, English horn, duduk, sinai, suona, zura, piccolo, bass clarinet, samba whistle; Chuck MacKinnon, trumpet, flugelhorn, EFX; Pete McCann: electric guitar; Kermit Driscoll: electric bass; Stephan Crump: bass, electric bass; Ron Oswanski: Fender Rhodes piano, accordion; John Hollenbeck: drums, percussion.