Grab your pencils and paper, students; there’ll be a pop quiz later. From Brian Sanders’ liner notes to Voyage from the Past:
“Dharma begins with the notion that the relationship between composition and improvisation is circular rather than linear; that each process inspires the other. Dharma furthers our sense that music is conversation: participants [are] free to interject ideas, develop thoughts or move on as they wish to the next topic.” Are you with us so far? Trumpeter Walter Blanton’s compositions, Sanders adds, are “played in the free spirit of Ornette Coleman.” Luckily, they’re not quite that free, even though one can almost feel Blanton’s septet straining to be “different” without completely turning its back on established chordal and harmonic signposts. The result is an album of earnest post–bop Jazz that is freer than some but hardly groundbreaking or radical. At least one number, “Variations,” was, we are told by Blanton, improvised on the spot following drummer Roy James’s feature, “Roy’s Toys,” but on the whole it seems no more careless or unrehearsed than anything else on the menu. The problem I’ve always had with improvisations that “flow from the structure and melody” is that most of them aren’t worth hearing. There’s some admirable blowing on this date, especially by James and bassist Kevin Thomas, but none of the solos causes any sparks to fly. Alto Phil Wigfall is the most frequently heard, and the most adventurous (although the usually more temperate Stefan Karlsson gives him a run for his money on “Voyage from the Past”). Blanton wrote everything except “Variations” and Coleman’s “Lorraine” and “Una Moy Bonita” (played “as one,” it says, although “Bonita” follows “Lorraine” medley–style) and he explains the rationale behind each of them in the liner notes. Dharma means, among other things, “the duty of being true to one’s self,” and no one can doubt that Blanton and his companions are shouldering that responsibility. The question is, does a “circular rather than linear relationship” between composition and improvisation promise a pleasant musical experience, an issue that listeners must inevitably resolve for themselves. This listener was unmoved, but there’s only one of me; others may find Dharma far more agreeable.
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