Tom Varner


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The last few recordings have marked Varner coming into his own as a composer, but he really asserts himself on this CD. Of course he's a world class French horn player, and his caché is increased a hundredfold with a simpatico band featuring saxophonists Tony Malaby and Steve Wilson, and with occasional help from trumpeter Dave Ballou, violinist Mark Feldman, and guitarist Pete McCann, as well as from the dynamic rhythm duo of bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Tom Rainey. No piano is heard on this session of compositions entirely written by Varner. The keyword for this music in the ultra-modern jazz tradition is "counterpoint." The compositions are loaded with interplay between the horns, all getting in their share during the elongated melody lines. It's more like a spirited conversation -- not arguments, but point-counterpoint ad infinitum, and the results are amazing. At 12 minutes, "Maybe Yes" is harmonically evolved and involved, with scattered call and response or shared resonance among the loping horns. 14 minutes of "Samuel Gets the Call" features extended outcries of who, what, when, why, and how set to a bluesy, balladic beat, ending with a bass solo. At just over ten minutes, the title track displays Varner's lucid, fluid, melodic ideas in an Afro-Cuban tinge rhythmically proclaimed by Rainey, and agreed upon by the leader's salty solo and Malaby's biting tenor. "Strident" is the heaviest of these pieces; a distented funk from Varner and Rainey leads to urgent 6/8 timing and an involved, advanced, complex density from the front line -- a most arresting new music work. There are shorter cuts as the sad song "Chicago Interlude," the hymnal blues "Paul Goes to Rome," and an easy "Omnitone Blues" led by French horn. In each piece, both saxes stagger and swagger behind Varner. By contrast "Pantoum" is cautious, employing a near Turkish motif. The "Seven Miniatures for Mark Feldman" features the violinist prominently, from minimalist call and response modes with Varner, to a horse-race freneticism and a dark dream sequence with violin creeping and French horn crawling under the surface. Feldman's violin clangs like a banged banjo -- reverential and cackling -- during the segment "Memory of One Nashville Gig." It then waltzes in Steve Reich-ian fashion, and rounds up three ring circus sounds from the saxes, violin, and French horn. The blasts are reminiscent of Kurt Weill's playing. Considering his previous projects next to this brilliant effort, Swimming might be called Varner's best in a string of very good to excellent recordings.

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