Forming in the late '70s, Northwoods Improvisers played for nearly two decades before their unique blend of jazz, African music, Eastern music, traditional folk, and free improvisation was documented on this debut compact disc from Trevor Watts' Arc label in 1994. Nearly 70 minutes of expansive music, all recorded in one day, the album plays like a live Northwoods experience, for which the band has garnered quite a following. Mike Gilmore's vibes form the centerpiece of the band and the album. His playing sits soundly next to the likes of legends Bobby Hutcherson, Walt Dickerson, Milt Jackson, and Gunter Hampel. As diverse as they come, Gilmore demonstrates his Eastern roots on "Komodo Dragon," introducing Western listeners to the hypnotic power of the cheng. A Japanese stringed instrument sounding similar to a sitar, the song has a propulsive rhythmic feel thanks to Mike Johnston's acoustic bass and Nick Ashton's energetic drumming. This serves as a perfect companion piece to opener "Gypsy Lady," a Charnet Moffet piece which sounds like a cosmic '50s hard bop tune (think early Sun Ra). Each piece on Fog & Fire has a uniquely separate identity from the others, which can be difficult for some to process. However, after repeated listens, the appreciation for polar opposites like Ayler (an open, somber tribute to free jazz genius Albert Ayler) and "Burning Trance," (a catchy polyrhythmic piece highlighting Ashton's gentle skill for African/Eastern grooves) becomes mutual. Also of note are "Ancient Fire," which showcases some very primal Randy Weston-esque rhythmic energy as Johnston's bass dances with Ashton's percussive powers and Gilmore's log drumming, before he picks up the vibe mallets once more. Finally, "Fog" is the listeners' first definitive glance into the extended free ambient universe that the trio explores further on successive albums. Vibe overtones beautifully crash with subdued arrhythmic drumming/percussion, as Johnston first greets listeners with his gorgeous bass recorder playing before again picking up the bass and bowing. There is a definite Art Ensemble of Chicago influence found here and in other recordings on the album. For those scared away by the Improvisers tag, fear not; these three clearly know what they are doing, as rhythm and melody are quite abundant -- gliding, driving over, or tugging at the soul.
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AllMusic Review by Jason Hundey