Variable Density Sound Orchestra | Evolving Strategies | Not Two Records

Not Two, 2014 | MW 911-2 | CD

Garrison Fewell – guitar, violin bow, bottleneck slide | John Tchicai – tenor saxophone, flute | Roy Campbell, Jr. – trumpet, pocket trumpet, flugelhorn, flute | Steve Swell – trombone | Dmitry Ishenko – bass | Reggie Nicholson – drums

Recorded January 3, 2012 at 58 North 6 Media Labs, Brooklyn, NY. Mixed and mastered by Bob Patton and Garrison Fewell, Thin Ice Productions. Produced by Garrison Fewell and Marek Winiarski.

Tracklist: 1. Mystical Realities (Swell) [09:02] 2. Evolving Strategies (Fewell) [03:42] 3. Return and Breathe (Tchicai) [08:23] 4. Thoughts for Dixon (Fewell) [05:09] 5. Voyage from Ra (Fewell) [07:18] 6. Revolving Strategies (Fewell) [02:34] 7. Heart is Only a Part (Tchicai) [03:23] 8. Mystical Realities: Aftermath (Swell) [12:07]

With great love and appreciation for the memory of our dear friends John Tchicai and Roy Campbell, Jr.


Talk with just about any improviser

and he or she will tell you that their music happens in the moment, it’s best when they are fully in the present. Garrison Fewell always recruits members of the Variable Density Sound Orchestra (VDSO) that he knows can perform fully in the moment. It gives the music it’s vividness and urgency and it’s spiritual core as well. “In Buddhism there are three existences of life—past, present, and future—and they are all one,” explains Garrison, a practicing Buddhist for nearly 40 years. “Everything is determined in the present moment—a series of present moments.” Which is as good a description of the music on this disc as any.

For this edition of the VDSO, the smallest of the three Garrison has recorded, there are very, very few barriers to making vital present-tense improvisations in this group. The band members, most of whom have crossed paths at one time or another in their careers but never assembled in this particular configuration, are already compatible by inclination and experience. Trombonist Steve Swell, trumpeter Roy Campbell, and bassist Dmitri Ishenko are VDSO veterans. John Tchicai was a frequent collaborator of Garrison’s in several other groups. Drummer Reggie Nicholson, while new to the VDSO, is no stranger to many of the members of the band, having recorded with Roy Campbell’s Pyramid Trio, and with Tchicai on Charles Gayle’s Always Born, and performed in groups led by Swell. “We were able to tune into each others intent and play music beyond what was written, more based on positive spirit than anything else,” Garrison says.

Two of them—unbelievably—are no longer with us. In fact, Roy Campbell died suddenly while this disc was being readied for production. John Tchicai was felled by a stroke just a few months after this recording was made and died several months after that. Ironically, this is the only time Roy and John recorded together (They recorded on separate days for the Spring Heel Jack CD, Songs and Themes, on which they both appear.). They are present in the music and in the lives of the musicians and listeners they touched with their art, even if they are no longer present on the planet. “John was a compelling presence in the music, and comping behind him while Reggie held nothing back was like being carried along by an irresistible wave of intensity. Roy was a peaceful spirit whose music embraced everyone with a feeling of unconditional love,” Garrison says. “I feel so fortunate that I could bring them together once more to perform and record. They were both good friends of mine who enriched my life in many ways.”

With a band as compatible with one another as this one, the compositions just need to provide enough of a context, a direction, or frame for the improvisations, while leaving the group plenty of freedom for spontaneity.

Garrison asked Steve to write a tune for the session and he came up with “Mystical Realities,” two takes of which bookend the disc. “How could I not include both takes,” Garrison enthuses, “all the solos are so good. I thought the second take was a great way to end the disc. It’s perhaps a fuller expression of the tune, with everyone, including Reggie, soloing.”


John’s tunes provide object lessons in using a composition to guide improvisation. “Return and Breathe” lays down different rhythmic foundations for soloists, starting with an out-of-tempo improvisation, moving into an oddly march-like beat and then into an almost-tango. The rhythm and melodic contours of “Heart Is a Only a Part” (previously recorded on Tchicai’s Hymn to Sofia) are maintained and inventively varied throughout the performance, creating a pithy and cohesive miniature.

The rest of the tunes are Garrison’s. He gives 12-tone composition, which in the hands of a lesser composer can be cold and austere, a human face on “Thoughts for Dixon,” dedicated to the late trumpeter Bill Dixon. After an opening duet between Steve and John, two intimate dodecaphonic themes are interspersed with two trio subgroups of the band. The result captures something of the mystery and introspection of Dixon’s music without simply copying his style.

The title track and “Revolving Strategies” are variations on the same composition. As Garrison explains it, he wrote nine themes and asked the players to each choose five to play. Some of the themes are written without tempo or bar lines, some only specify rhythm and leave note choice up to the player. One is blank. It’s also up to the individual to decide whether to repeat a theme or what transition to use between themes. “No two versions will ever sound the same,” Garrison says, “As a composer-improviser, I like that the result will always be different.”

“Voyage from Ra” was a last minute addition to the session. A few years ago, Garrison wrote “Queen of Ra” as a feature for Tchicai. Garrison hadn’t planned on using it on this date, but changed his mind and quickly sketched out the melody, leaving it up to the band to flesh out an arrangement. He decided to omit the original tune’s bridge, however, so it was in effect a different tune that needed a different title. Since one of Garrison’s inspirations is Charles Tyler’s “Voyage from Jericho,” he combined the two titles as a tribute to the late saxophonist.

So those are the facts, and these are only words. And neither facts nor words can really resolve all the temporal paradoxes unleashed by improvising in the present. Only listening with an open heart will help you do that. The facts may interest us because the music excites us, but the facts remain external to the music making. And words can never penetrate to the place where music comes from. Perhaps music comes from a place before words are even formed, perhaps it unfolds in a moment too fleeting for words to grasp and hold. Perhaps music anticipates feelings and actions that haven’t yet occurred and which words cannot predict. Past, present, future—in the VDSO’s music it’s all one eternal present. — Ed Hazell


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One thought on “Variable Density Sound Orchestra | Evolving Strategies | Not Two Records

  1. The constituent parts of guitarist Garrison Fewell’s Variable Density Sound Orchestra shifted gradually between its eponymous inception (Creative Nation, 2008) and sophomore effort on Sound Particle 47 (Creative Nation, 2010). Inevitably there will be further changes in the future if the unit continues, as both trumpeter Roy Campbell and reedman John Tchicai have passed on since the session which yielded Evolving Strategies in January 2012. Such losses will make a big difference as the group has developed a distinctive ethos built upon elegant writing which encourage garrulous interplay and improvisation with a personal stamp. That’s all the more surprising as the charts stem from the pens of not only the leader but also Tchicai and trombonist Steve Swell.

    Two takes of Swell’s Mystical Realities bookend the proceedings. In the liners, Fewell explains that the quality of the solos demanded that both cuts be included, and it’s easy to hear the truth in that statement, notably in the longer second version where both the author and Tchicai sound particularly inspired and expressive. Between times, a variety of compositional gambits generate consistently worthwhile results. Both Fewell’s title cut and its near relative “Revolving Strategies” were created by giving each player a set of themes, from which they could select five. It was up to each player whether to repeat and how to transition between themes. Avoiding any hint of artifice, both versions revel in a conversational pointillism which nonetheless produces a unified whole, lyrically calm on the former, more emphatic and chatty on the latter.

    By contrast Tchicai’s “Return and Breathe” features recognizable soloists, each given a different settings. It moves between sparse unhurried dialogue, an intricate hocketed march and a loping riff, over which the reedman spins insistent soulful variations. He also looms large on “Voyage from Ra,” blowing an impassioned incantation against choppy backing, before switching to flute for a poised conclusion. Throughout the generous and adventurous program, the leader’s cool intelligence and full jazzy tone add graceful counterpoint which not only complements whoever stands center stage but also provides the cohesion which glues everything together.

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