Tom Varner Nonet- Nine Surprises
(Tom Varner Music 101. 2014. CD REview by Frank Griffith)
Nine Surprises is the latest recording by french hornist and composer, Tom Varner, and is just that. As the leader says in his liner notes “a suite of meditations on the many surprises, good and bad, even when we think we have few surprises left”.
The cream of Seatle’s jazzers are on display here- all of whom contribute equally in solo and ensemble roles. Among those are alto saxist Mark Taylor, bassist, Phil Sparks, Tom Marriot on trumpet and of course the leader’s french horn.
This is Varner’s 14th project as a leader and roughly coincides with his move to Seattle where he teaches at the Cornish Institute (where John Cage, of all people taught many decades ago). Before that, Tom had a long established career in NYC where he was a virtual fixture on the scene being equally employed as a session, orchestral and jazz player. This versatility and command of his instrument clearly show on his remarkable solo on Seattle Blues, an uptempo modal romp.His combination of driving, spirited lines imbued by a somewhat masked and laconic tonal quality welcome and engage the listener while challenging them concurrently.
As most jazz listeners might suspect, the horn has not been overly featured as an improvising voice and, for my money, Varner is the leading exponent of that role in the world today. This tradition began in the late 1950s with people like David Amram and Julius Watkins followed later by Sharon Freeman, Peter Gordon and the UK’s Richard Bissell and Jim Rattigan. Excellent improvisers all as well as the countless others deserving recognition in this area.
I demur breaking down each track: better you should listen to the thing in its entirety. While the parts are superior musicianship, the Varner sum is even greater. Having said this, as an arranger and a Gil-ophile (Evans) I found the CD’s closer, Mele is a particularly riveting and significant track. Boasting a long-form melody with few notes it’s carried on by the cloaked and dissonant harmonic settings that engage the listener in a captively haunting way. This is somewhat ironic as Mele was based on a pop Hawaiian Christmas song originally recorded in the 1940s by Bing Crosby!
There is, as Shakespeare wrote, “nothing new under the sun”, except perhaps, the various organic surprises on this wonderful CD.