Recent Listening: Tom Varner
Tom Varner, Heaven and Hell (Omnitone). When Varner moved from New York to Seattle in 2006, he left behind none of his French horn virtuosity, compositional skill or avant-garde daring. Heaven and Hell is his meditation on changes in the world and in his life since the 9/11 attack, and on the evolution of his approach to music. The 15-part suite reflects a sensibility that is at home with the influences of, among others, Gil Evans and his fellow arrangers for the Miles Davis nonet, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Mingus andin a startling segment titled Birds and Thirds"the power of triadic ensemble chord voicings that might have come straight from Brahms.
Varner's Lapidary skill in the written sections is complemented by interludes of collective free improvisation connecting the principle movements. Throughout, in addition to the strength of Varner's audacious French horn, there are superior interpretation and improvisation from trumpeter Russ Johnson; trombonist Chris Stover; clarinetist Jesse Canterbury; saxophonists Saul Cline, Hans Teuber, Mark Taylor, Eric Barber and Jim DeJoie; bassist Phil Sparks; and drummer Byron Vannoy. Johnson is a New Yorker. All of the others are from Seattle. Their excellence emphasizes one of the underground secrets in jazz; the rainy city is one of today's strongholds of adventuresome creativity.
Among the many highlights is Sparks' and Vannoy's bass/drum conversation in The Trilling Clouds," with the typically reserved Sparks going farther out than I have ever before heard him. Another is the saxophone pas de trois among Teuber, Taylor and Barber in Waltz for the Proud Tired Workers." Strategically placed in solo and ensemble is Varner's astonishing horn, featuring one of the most capacious low registers ever heard on the instrument. The ache and agony expressed in Varner's composing and the soloists' statements in Structure Down" are at the heart of the work. This music, in all of its starkness and loveliness, should be heard as a continuum. Taken piecemeal, it would lose its cumulative impact.