Depending on your frame of mind, the music on guitarist/composer Rich Woodson's second CD as a leader might provoke all kinds of heavy thoughts -- about improvisation versus composition, soloists versus accompanists, and maybe even the nature of collective musical expression itself. Woodson seems to ask for such ruminations with his bold pronouncement on The Nail That Stands Up Gets Pounded Down's back cover: "THERE IS NO IMPROVISATION ON THIS RECORDING." One must, of course, take him at his word that every single sound heard within has been scored, and that the members of his Ellipsis quintet are painstakingly squinting at written music during every single second of this 40-minute CD. But one must also presume, once the disc is spinning and the music is tumbling out of the speakers, that Woodson's objective was to make music that possesses a strongly improvisational feel, and to get there through compositional means. The instrumentation is fairly conventional for a "jazz" quintet -- Woodson on often burning and distorted electric guitar is joined by Anthony Burr on clarinet, Aaron Stewart on tenor saxophone, Mat Fieldes on standup bass, and John Hollenbeck on drums -- and there is a sense of continual forward momentum. Moreover, the lines played by the musicians have a jazzlike fluidity, and intertwine in a way that suggests the conversational dialogues of a highly skilled avant-garde jazz ensemble engaging in an especially productive collective improvisation. So why not just improvise? And if going the composition route, why feel the need to trumpet that fact with what could be taken as a "100 Percent Composed" seal of approval?
Perhaps one answer could be that Woodson, in addition to being a fine composer and guitarist, sees himself as a bit of a debunker -- that is, debunking the received wisdom that improvisation is necessarily the ultimate means of musical expression when five people get together to play their "jazz" instruments. Here the music ebbs and flows; phrases are tossed out by one instrument and immediately joined or embellished upon by others; harmony, unison, and counterpoint meet individual statements that sound like they could have emerged spontaneously from each musician but in reality came from the mind of Woodson before the bandmembers gathered to work their way through his material. There are some things missing, however: bravado, exhibitionism, egotism, to name a few. In their place is music that presents the paradox of being light on its feet and exceedingly dense, packing more actual content into a relatively short package than, say, a dozen head-solos-head jazz CDs. (And the occasional surprising digital processing effect notwithstanding, the music also tends to stay in a rather narrow dynamic range -- you can turn it up loud to freak out the neighbors without fearing a sudden burst that would blow your speakers clean apart, or turn it way down for some of the most convoluted ambient music imaginable.) Anthony Braxton has achieved some of the same feeling in his more thoroughly composed works of a "contemporary classical" vein, and there are other examples such as Tim Hodgkinson's "Amygdala" from the first Henry Cow album -- not to mention Woodson's first CD, Control and Resistance, very similar to The Nail aside from its use of soprano sax rather than clarinet and its duller and muted mix. Anyone caring to start another composition-versus-improvisation debate could easily presume where Rich Woodson stands, and on the basis of The Nail he arguably wins the first round.