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Dan Willis: Velvet Gentlemen

John Kelman By

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Even those who get the titular reference of woodwind multi-instrumentalist Dan Willis' Velvet Gentlemen will be challenged to find a clear link. Those with only a passing acquaintance with classical composer Erik Satie (1866-1925)—nicknamed "The Velvet Gentleman because of his predilection for velvet jackets—will find little in Willis' sometimes complex, often electric and improvisation-oriented music to link him with the understated simplicity of works like "Trois Gymnopédies (1888) or "Trois Gnossiennes (1890).

Still, for those who are more familiar with the French composer, Willis' work bears comparison in spirit, if not direct reference. Popular repertoire aside, Satie was an idiosyncratic composer whose work was often impressionistic, multilayered and multidisciplinary—three terms that can easily be applied to Willis and his ensemble.

Willis is a busy New York player whose arsenal of instruments rivals that of longtime Oregon member Paul McCandless. Alongside conventional saxophones, bass clarinet and piccolo, Willis also incorporates English horn and oboe, as well as a number of ethnic double reed instruments including the Chinese suona and Aremnian duduk. He often layers his instruments, creating a larger section sound, but he maintains enough clarity to prevent things from ever sounding too dense.

Willis' writing, while hardly classical in tone, bears some comparison, especially in the episodic nature of the longer pieces. The ten-minute title track begins as a dark tone poem, a duet between Willis' oboe and guitarist Pete McCann's Frisell-like sustained chordal swells. But it ultimately evolves into a more rhythm-centric piece where the focus is on bassist Stephan Crump's firm sense of swing and John Hollenbeck's loose versatility—something that can be easily forgotten on the drummer's own projects, where his instrumental skills are often overshadowed by his remarkable compositions.

Elsewhere the music touches on everything from the Metheny-esque Americana of "Door to Yesterday) to the Latin-informed "Closed Loops in Time. "3:10 Local references the fusion of mid-1970s Miles Davis by directly quoting the bass line from "Great Expectations, but it's even more open-ended than its inspiration. Three brief pieces are culled from an extended free improv that took place at the end of the session, but they feel completely in context.

The ensemble is consistently impressive throughout: everyone sounds remarkably credible across Willis' diverse musical settings. McCann stands out, his aforementioned Frisell-isms representing only one aspect of a broader spectrum that ranges from warm lyricism and spare elegance to jagged angularity, rich voicings and rapid-fire fusion energy.

Velvet Gentlemen demonstrates qualities that are hard to find: it's cerebral in conception, yet paradoxically never less than profoundly moving. Unequivocally a player's record, it's more importantly a selfless effort where the collective end is far greater than any strikingly individual means.


Track Listing: Many Worlds Theory; Nothing is Real; Place of Enlightenment; Door to Yesterday; Velvet Gentlemen; Closed Loops in Time; I

Personnel: 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.

Title: Velvet Gentlemen | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: OmniTone


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