Nils Wogram's Root 70

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Riomar Review

by Dave Lynch

Trombonist/composer Nils Wogram and Root 70 released Riomar, their third album of "Conceptual Works," in January 2014, and Wogram and his longstanding creative jazz quartet again proved their ability to remain broadly appealing while exploring new musical directions. Issued in 2008, On 52nd 1/4 Street (subtitled Conceptual Works I) found the band playing vintage bop-style "interpretations" of "standards" that were actually new originals, while on 2010's Listen to Your Woman (Conceptual Works II), Root 70 took a deep dive into the blues. Riomar melds modern jazz and chamber music, with Root 70's harmonically adventurous foursome of Wogram, microtonal alto saxophonist Hayden Chisholm, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Jochen Rueckert supplemented by three outstanding, empathetic string players: violinist Gerdur Gunnarsdottir, violist Gareth Lubbe, and cellist Adrian Brendel. Lovely unaccompanied strings introduce the opening track, "Lisboa," with arco lines giving way to pizzicato accompaniment as the Root 70 quartet enters and Chisholm plays a pretty melody over a deliberate rhythmic pace; the plucked strings enliven rather than soften Wogram's modern jazz arrangement. These string players are clearly comfortable playing music whose genre distinctions have been blurred. At the start of the album's title track, Lubbe's wide-vibrato, double stop-inflected viola exudes a mournful country bluesiness, but when Chisholm enters, followed by the rest of the ensemble, the distance between rural roots and urban jazz sophistication is seamlessly and instantaneously erased. As "Riomar" stretches languidly past the ten-minute mark with several beautifully played solo features, its chamberesque approach to the blues is certainly atmospheric, although fans of the genre's unvarnished side (clearly not what the ensemble was aiming for here) might find the track to be a bit overly polite.

The duet pairing Wogram's expressive read of the melody with Brendel's masterful arpeggiated cello in "Seeing the New in the Old" hews toward traditionalism in its jazz-classical meld, and as "Don't Believe" slips back and forth between boppish and Bach-ish, the tune's jaunty, upbeat feel provides the thread uniting its jazz and classical elements. Best are the pieces that embrace and integrate modernism in both idioms, including album highlight "Vacation Without Internet," beginning with clipped, agitated phrases from the strings that soon play against Penman's racing bassline; as the piece morphs into an upbeat swinger, one can easily imagine the Internet addict's initial panic replaced by the exuberant discovery of immediate, real-world sensations beyond the glowing screens of smart phones and tablets. The explosive "Playing the Game" finds both the quartet and string players entwining their jagged and angular lines, and provides an opportunity for Wogram to truly cut loose on the 'bone. And even on pieces with elongated, sustained string motifs (e.g., "Uniformly Uninformed"), the composer's advanced harmonic sensibilities assure that the strings are not employed as mere "sweetening." This wide-ranging and satisfying album ends with "Traveling Home," dirgelike, mournful, and suggesting a requiem. Home would seem to be a place of melancholy and reflection -- or perhaps vacation's over, and it's time to reconnect with wi-fi.

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