Tom Varner

Martian Heartache

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In reviewing this album, a critic might trot out some line about there not being many jazz French horn players, but truth be told, there just aren't many jazz musicians like Tom Varner, period. Varner is the rarest of birds: a jazz composer/instrumentalist with an experimental streak who places at least as much emphasis (and expends as much effort) on the craft of composition as he does improvisation. Varner is a fine soloist no doubt, taming the harmonically precarious horn as few other contemporary jazz musicians have. But more interesting is the attention he pays to the nuance of composition. Varner's tunes aren't just jumping-off points for jamming; they are rather full-fledged contexts that not only frame the improvised elements, but function as a coherent whole unto themselves. It takes a special kind of musician to play music of this type -- someone who can interpret the will of the composer as well as contribute something of himself. In alto saxophonist Ed Jackson, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Tom Rainey Varner has made splendid choices. So many experimental (or free, or avant-garde) jazz albums have a leader's name pasted on the top, not because he had a vision for the music, but because he was the one who got the record date together. About this music there can be no mistake; as inspired as the overall playing is here, the shape and substance of this music was determined by the man with his name on top. This album is one of the finest manifestations of the experimental impulse in jazz to be heard in some time.

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