Dan Willis

Hand to Mouth

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This CD, reedman Dan Willis's second for Challenge/A Records, is full of good-natured music. It contains eight tuneful, well-crafted Willis compositions and a beautiful meditation on the classic "Nearness of You," all rendered with grace and spirit by a terrific group of musicians. There's a feeling of serenity here, even on up-tempo grooves like the catchy opener, the reggae choruses on "Landscape in a Dream," the Cajun-flavored title track, and the bebop standouts, "Aw Shucks" and "Saving the World." Leader Willis knows how to build a passionate, swinging solo without honking or grandstanding; each note is carefully placed and meaningful, and his tone is golden (even on the soprano sax, which is notoriously difficult to keep in tune). He serves up a varied buffet: "Sunfather" evokes the colors and open spaces of the West, while "If We" is a soulful duet between tenor and Ben Monder's sensitive acoustic guitar. The band's interplay is relaxed and fluid, with a good blend of acoustic and electric guitar and the estimable Drew Gress on bass. Pete McCann provides funky atmosphere and expressive statements on electric guitar -- adding some rock & roll wailing to "Hand to Mouth" -- and master Larry Goldings supplies finger-snapping organ comps, burning solos, and some rare, impressive piano work on the closer. The subtlety of young percussionist/drummer John Hollenbeck is also noteworthy -- hear, for example, his controlled intricacy on "Saving the World" and his use of bells on the lovely "Smiles Passing By." Melodic and superbly executed, "Hand to Mouth" is interesting from beginning to end; moreover, the fine mood it creates may well inspire you to press the "repeat" button on your CD player -- and leave it there.

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