Boston Phoenix Article

Variable density

Garrison Fewell, live at Johnny D’s, October 13, 2010

By JON GARELICK | October 15, 2010

To call what Garrison Fewell does with his Variable Density Sound Orchestra “free jazz” doesn’t quite fit the bill. Sure, there are plenty of unfixed meters and tonalities and multi-horn improvs. But Fewell likes to contain that freedom within the boundaries of some clear designs — even if those designs aren’t conventionally notated. So “The Red Pyramid,” from the band’s homonymous 2009 album, fits the description of the title — the gradual accretion of musical material to a peak, and then a subtraction. Base to summit and back again.

At Johnny D’s on Wednesday night, the band played from that album and the new Sound Particle 47 (Creative Nation Music). Personnel can be variable as well, but in this case the line-up included the great Afro-Dutch saxophonist and flutist John Tchicai, whose compositions are on the new album and whom Fewell called “the fonte — the fountain of tunes we can unite around.” Tchicai’s credentials go all the way back to John Coltrane’s landmark free-jazz record Ascension, on which he played. Ever since, he’s combined compositional deliberation with improvisational freedom.

At Johnny D’s, the second tune of the first set was typical — “One of Those,” which Fewell described as a collective improvisation. And yet, surely there was a predetermined agreement regarding the dynamics of the introductory soft cloud of free fluttering horns. (Tchicai was joined on the front line by tenor-sax Kelly Roberge, bass-clarinettest Todd Brunel, and trumpeter Jerry Sabatini.) The cloud would clear for solo passages or subdivided groupings of the entire band. For much of the night, Fewell and Eric Hofbauer both played understated guitar — a constant weave of lines and chords. In essence, two lead guitars.

By the beginning of the second set, on “Spectronomous,” I was worrying that the band’s strategy for unison statements had begun to wear: fast phrase, rest, fast phrase, rest, long-held tone. Repeat. But soon they were into a vamp, and then “Betty’s Bounce” from the new album — a bebop line and the first walking-bass swing of the night. Hofbauer even played some octave phrases in the Wes Montgomery manner. Then came Fewell’s dark, majestic “Ayleristic,” from the first album, its open chords and mournful melody somehow combining Miles and Zawinul’s “In a Silent Way” with Ornette’s “Lonely Woman,” Albert Ayler splitting the difference.

Sabatini was a marvel all night, even at one point when the mute dropped out of his horn and onto the music stand. His sharp articulation and sudden darts up and down the register upped the temperature. Brunel maintained a beautiful tone through all the registers (not easy when playing jazz on bass clarinet) and, like Roberge, he seemed to draw inspiration from Tchicai’s long, free, melodic inventions generated from repeated rhythmic riffs. Bassist Dmitry Ishenko took a solo that was old-school avant-garde — leaping intervals, fast, clean flurries of notes, slamming flamenco chords, rattling double stops. Drummer Miki Matsuki used rims, cymbal washes, and mallets to create a dynamically controlled accompaniment that was about timbre as much as time. Toward the end of the set, the band played another medium-tempo, long-lined melody that Fewell said he and Tchicai had written via email, adding, “We don’t use Finale.”

Read more:


Garrison Fewell’s Journey Out



BOSTON PHOENIX  February 6, 2009

By the time guitarist Garrison Fewell made his first record as a leader, in the early ’90s, he was nearly 40 years old, and the sound he displayed on his debut, A Blue Deeper Than Blue, was ripe. Here was nuanced coloristic shading, subtle swing, a sure melodic sense, rich harmonic palette, detailed fingerwork, and what critic Ed Hazell called in his liner notes a distinctive “cashmere sound.” It was post-bop guitar out of the Jim Hall school, refined and lyrical.

So fans of A Blue Deeper Than Blue — and Fewell’s two other ’90s releases on Cambridge’s Accurate Records — might be surprised to hear his new Variable Density Sound Orchestra (Creative Nation Music). Whereas the music on those discs cycled faithfully through harmonically explicit chord progressions over clearly stated meters, the 10 pieces on the new one play with more-open forms. They float through ambiguous tonal centers, move in and out of tempo, break for solos that may or may not adhere to a given theme. The classic post-bop format of those early discs — guitar, piano, bass, drums — has been supplanted by arrangements for sextet and septet and a small orchestra of sounds: Fewell and Creative Nation Music honcho Eric Hofbauer on guitars, New York avant-gardist Roy Campbell Jr. on trumpet, flügelhorn, and flutes, esteemed Italian reedman Achille Succi on bass clarinet and alto saxophone, veteran Boston bassist John Voigt, Boston drummer Miki Matsuki, and Fewell’s son Alex on percussion. In fact, everyone plays percussion, Fewell and Hofbauer adding to the mix with “prepared” guitar passages.

What hasn’t changed is Fewell’s sense of melodic lyricism or the compositional intent of each piece, no matter how free. Collective free-improv alternates with bass vamps, unison themes, previously agreed-upon strategies. As on 2006’s superb Good Night Songs (Boxholder) with Fewell and saxophonists John Tchicai and Charlie Kohlhase, the tension between form and freedom and the “variable density” of timbre and texture replace standard structures and create their own sense of narrative expectancy, suspense, and resolution. Still, how did he get from there to here — the mainstream jazz guitarist to the free experimenter?

“It was an alien abduction,” Fewell (who brings his Orchestra — plus trombonist Steve Swell and second bassist Dmitry Ishenko — to the YMCA Theater in Central Square this Friday) tells me straight-faced when we get together in the lobby of the Charles Hotel, downstairs from the Regattabar. “It’s similar to what happened to Sun Ra. When I came back, I was changed.”

In truth, the change had been coming on for years. “I was listening to music that I wasn’t playing” — people like Sun Ra, David Murray, the South Africans Dudu Pukwana and Johnny Dyanni, the Afro-Dutch Tchicai. Fewell wanted to integrate some of what he’d been listening to into his own music, but he wasn’t sure how. By chance, he ran into Hazell, and the two got to talking. “Ed said he thought there were two kinds of free jazz: melodic and anti-melodic.” He saw Fewell as a potential melodic free player. “You know, when a friend challenges you and says, ‘Yeah, you should do that!’ “

Then it was a matter of finding players with whom he’d be comfortable taking those first steps. One of the artists from his vast record collection was Khan Jamal, a vibist with a small discography and scant public profile. Fewell sent an e-mail to the address of a record company on the back of a CD: “I’m looking for Khan Jamal. He doesn’t owe me money or anything, I just really like his music.” An e-mail came back: “Okay, you found me, now what?”

Fewell visited Jamal in his Philadelphia neighborhood — Germantown, not far from where Sun Ra had lived — and the two planned a gig at the Regattabar and worked on Khan’s music. Here was the kind of thing Fewell was looking for: pan-tonal and atonal experiments, one meter against another, two meters simultaneously. That was in March 2003. Later that year he’d meet Tchicai through a concert at the ICA. Good Night Songs followed, then Big Chief Dreaming with Tchicai and a quintet on the Italian Soul Note label.

Tchicai is remembered by most as one of the players on John Coltrane’s free-jazz breakthrough, Ascension, though his performances with Fewell, Kohlhase, and the Either/Orchestra have made him a Boston regular in recent years. “Everyone thinks of John as being this ’60s guy, totally free,” says Fewell, “but he’s not. He really believes strongly in composition, playing the composition correctly, and his compositions can be very difficult.” But then come the improvisations, which are about “whatever you experienced in playing the composition.”

Take the Variable Density opener, “Spectronomous.” It begins with a short unison statement of the theme’s wide leaping intervals and a long held trill, then proceeds with darting figures based on those intervals being passed from instrument to instrument in a free improvisation before returning to the sprightly theme. “The Red Pyramid” begins with a purely improvised melody by Campbell on muted trumpet that sets the mood as he’s joined by “Egyptian gong sounds” and other instruments that, piece by piece, build a pyramid. By the end, the structure has been inverted, back to Campbell, now on open horn, in duet with Voigt.

Instead of providing notes for such a piece, Fewell provides “a design.” In the case of “The Red Pyramid,” the design was drawn on a napkin at the bar at Redbones in Davis Square — “the entrances of instruments, how they interact, who plays with whom, where it goes and how it ends.”

Some pieces proceed more conventionally. The 17-minute “Venus” (the longest track on the record) opens with an appropriately spacy passage based on a long-lined theme before going into a bass vamp that everyone solos over. Succi is a particular standout here, extending from the deep baritone register of his bass clarinet to a clear, controlled altissimo. Fewell’s “Ayleristic” is a reminder of the delicacy of Albert Ayler’s work in his trio with Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray. Its gentle, rolling open chords are as reminiscent of In a Silent Way as of Spiritual Unity. The album closer, “Naminthi’s Shadow,” is a lovely, melancholy, Ornette-ish ballad by Butch Morris.

There’s one strange and wonderful event after another in Fewell’s pieces — eloquent solo statements, serendipitous combinations of clang and sigh, the beauty of his guitar set across the soundstage from Hofbauer’s slightly harder-edged sound as the two support the other players. At times, the bed of complementary guitar sounds acts like a pine-needle-covered path through a shady forest. “I want an environment where there’s experimentation but also expectation, freedom but also responsibility. A lot of free music is too free. You’re always risking whether something is going to happen or not.”

Fewell splits his time between Boston, where he’s been teaching at Berklee since 1977, and summers in Europe — he and his wife have a home in Bergamo, just northeast of Milan, that serves as a base. He and Hofbauer often work as a duo (as on their standout 2008 CD, The Lady of Khartoum), and he continues to work with Tchicai. One of the many interpersonal felicities of Variable Density was Fewell’s dragging son Alex — a rock drummer now studying at Berklee — into the studio. Fewell recalls driving around with Alex, then 16 or 17, and listening to the legendary free-jazz drummer Milford Graves on the car stereo. “He asked me, ‘Hey Dad, do you have to know how to play drums to play like that?’ It was a good question!”

Fewell does have friends and fans who miss his old music. “Was my true self when I was playing with Fred Hersch and Cecil McBee on Blue Deeper Than Blue? Yeah, at the time! But I didn’t throw out melody in order to create chaos. For a few of my friends, this is already too far out. But they’re looking for that other guy to come back, and I don’t know if he is.”


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