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Album Review: Nate Wooley – Argonautica

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Nate Wooley has never been afraid of bold choices.  His playing style is a constant testament to individuality and originality, earning him a position of playing the trumpet like no one else on the planet.  Wooley’s previous albums range from abstract renditions of Wynton Marsalis tunes to particularly harsh versions of free jazz with obscure multi-phonic trumpet chops juxtaposed against distorted extended techniques.  On his new album Argonautica, Wooley brings together musicians from the free jazz community and the fusion jazz scene making for a wide-ranging work encompassing valleys of space and cities of noise.

The first notable aspect of Argonautica is its singular track-list.  Wooley has elected to give his ensemble a 42 minute period of time to develop their ideas to their full extent.  Beginning alone, Wooley sets an ambient tone eventually pulling a specified melodic idea out of his spacey phrasing.  This motive becomes an obsession of the whole ensemble for roughly the first 10-12 minutes where the fusion side of the band is allowed to show its true colors.  Highly articulated snare hits provide variation on the heavy-handed, slow groove as Wooley and Ron Miles remain clean in trumpet/cornet tone with very few extended techniques coming into play.  After this groove-heavy portion of music dissipates the music travels into obscurity with more electronic effects coming into play as the melodic ideas return to abstraction.

As the music presses forward, sweeping ups and downs continue with different players coming into the spotlight.  The moody keyboards of Jozef Dumoulin compete with the atonal piano chops of Cory Smythe before even more focus is placed on Smythe with the gradual disappearance of the rest of the members of the ensemble.  Toward the end of the piece, drummer Devin Gray adds to the ambience with textural cymbal work with Dumoulin leading the charge into the final blow.  Wooley’s selection of players seems to encompass a perfect level of overlap and individuality making for intriguing idea development throughout.  As individuals are brought into the spotlight, their ideas sensibly transition from the previous territory into a whole new place, thus taking full advantage of the massive space provided by the length of the piece.

Perhaps one of the issues with a long-form fusion record like this is the inescapable comparison to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.  Particularly towards the end of the piece, Wooley’s droning high notes over a heavily distorted atmosphere serve as a relatively straightforward tribute to Davis’ work.  Also, the slow, repetitive bass and keyboard grooves juxtaposed against more be-bop rooted trumpet licks constantly pull the listener back to the time of jazz-rock fusion’s original conception.  Obviously any musical idea is going to have some rooting in the past, however, it is fair to say that Wooley is not creating a whole new sound on this record as he has done in the past and he probably could have done more to displace himself from his inspiration.

Despite pulling a lot of ideas out of the Bitches Brewplaybook, Wooley maintains a vicious sense of self by taking his usual liberties with trumpet playing.  One of the particularly interesting moments occurs when Wooley and Ron Miles take space to trade off ideas.  At the beginning of this duet both players tend to be using similar trumpet playing, both emphasizing clear-toned licks.  Eventually Wooley starts to travel off the beaten path showcasing his deranged trumpet chops.  Considering the fact that Ron Miles was a mentor of sorts to Wooley, this serves as an interesting sonic representation of Wooley’s life as a player.  Although he is very unique, his playing comes from classic-jazz rooted playing, so by playing in the style of Ron Miles then slowly evolving into his more avant-garde playing style, he has shown the inspiration that can be drawn from mentorship.

Argonautica is certainly an impressive feat.  Wooley and his ensemble successfully entertain from beginning to end with many different ideas coming into play.  Although the group certainly draws heavy influence from fusion-jazz’s past, enough musicality and originality is at play for the album to be enjoyed through many listens.

-Review but Donovan Burtan