The French horn doesn't appear very often as a prominent soloing instrument in jazz, but Tom Varner wields it as supplely as any more agile member of the brass family, negotiating boppish heads and fiery improvisations with ease. On The Mystery of Compassion, the core band is a quintet consisting of three horns (Varner's axe augmented by saxophonists Ed Jackson and Rich Rothenberg), bass, and drums, expanded to sextet (with violinist Mark Feldman) and tentet on two cuts. The basic mode of operation is somewhat similar to the paths blazed in the late '80s by drummer Bobby Previte, who -- oddly enough -- is on hand as the producer of this session. This is to say that Varner's compositions go deeper than the standard head-solos-head format and actually permeate the pieces, the themes emerging and evolving throughout the work, the solos appearing in an organic fashion rather than popping up in a rote manner. Compositions like "The Well" are more tone poems than jazz fare, structured all the way through, though still offering improvised sections. When things click, as on "$1000 Hat" with its falling-down-the-stairs rhythms and archly funky horn line, Varner's ensemble offers up fascinating music that straddles the borders between jazz and an urban mix with a root or two in noir soundtracks, world music, and who knows what else. The Mystery of Compassion is a must for fans of the jazzier edges of the downtown New York scene.
AllMusic Review by Brian Olewnick