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Nate Wooley and Columbia Icefield – ‘Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes’

Nate Wooley and Columbia Icefield: Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes

(Pyroclastic Records. Review by Tony Dudley-Evans)

Columbia Icefield is a group led by trumpeter/ composer Nate Wooley, and this is their second album. Their first, (Columbia Icefield, Northern Spy, 2019) traced the route of the Columbia River from Wooley’s hometown in Oregon upstream and northwards to its glacial headwaters, creating music that reflected the beauty of the icefield. Songs of The Burlap Heroes, on Kris Davis’s Pyroclastic label, brings the project to its conclusion concentrating on a homecoming that contrasts one’s roots with the immensity of the wider world.

Columbia Icefield consists of a core quartet: Mary Halverson on guitar, Susan Alcorn on pedal steel, and Ryan Sawyer on drums.  There are also guest spots for Trevor Dunn on electric bass and Mat Maneri on viola.  Wooley originally planned the group as a re-imagined jazz group, but is now inclined to see the music as more akin to folk music, in the sense that it tells a story that reflects the history and ethos of a people. Wooley dedicates the music to the Burlap Heroes, a people who march , “consciously or not, back to the sea in the hopes of making no splash, who understands and embraces the imperfection of being, and, in that way, stretches the definition of sainthood.

Sonically, the music on the album has a lot in common with contemporary classical music, but Wooley in his writing and conceptions is also clearly very alive to the distinctive and personal sounds of each of the individual members of this group.

The whole piece is played straight-through, but the track listing shows seven pieces: four quite short with titles TK 1 to 4, and three long tracks with the enigmatic titles I Am The Sea That Sings Of Dust, A Catastrophic Legend and Returning to Drown Myself, Finally.

The piece begins with atmospheric shifting sounds created initially by Wooley’s extended techniques on the trumpet followed by Halvorson’s distinctive sound on the guitar.  This combination continues into the track with the title I Am The Sea That Sings Of Dust, but about half way through Wooley enters with a beautifully clear sound.  The track develops through interaction between trumpet and drums and then with Maneri’s viola. 

The second long track, A Catastrophic Legend, is a stunning piece of music, initially quite meditative, but gradually building up the intensity with Halvorson (or is it Alcorn?) at the forefront.  The mood then changes with a beautiful passage of melodic trumpet which in turn leads into a more dramatic passage with Wooley’s trumpet playing over a groove from Dunn’s electric bass and Sawyer’s drums.  This leads into an exciting duo passage from electric bass and drums before Wooley’s trumpet re-enters to take the piece into the next track.

The whole, hour-long piece moves very effectively through passages of great beauty and others of strong intensity.  It certainly captures something of the atmosphere and force of a glacier through the use of Wooley’s extended techniques on the trumpet and the idiosyncratic sounds of Halvorson’s and Alcorn’s guitars.

LINK: Ancient Songs… on Bandcamp – and on YouTube

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