"A stunning record, and all the more impressive for making its mark with music that's essentially quiet and considered. The music here is so positive in heart and mind it should give any listener new hope. One of the year's best releases."
Richard Cook, The Wire, September 1987
Dennis' new album is not necessarily about bop, although all the musicians involved can play any note within any chord. It's not about avant-garde or free music although Dennis has played much of that in his musical career. It's not about ''third world" or ethnic musics, although Gonzalez is well-versed in the music of many cultures. The music is all of these, yet none of these. This record is about good solid new music with a strong sense of humanity.
Being fortunate enough to sit in on the sessions and learn about the intent of the music (which is as important as the music itself) as well as the conception and content, I was able to get a good overall idea of the guts of each tune.
The opening "Enrico" reflects Gonzalez's willingness to find musical sources anywhere. The tune contains a bassline composed on piano by 16-year old Eric "Enrico" Palos, a Mariachi student of Dennis' at North Dallas High School. Dennis transcribed the bassline soon after hearing it and later fitted a chord progression to it in half steps against the line in a challenging yet pleasing manner.
The ensemble's sound is firmly established in this tune. Listen to the driving rhythm section of bassist Henry Franklin and drummer W. A. Richardson, the smoothly virtuoso bass clarinet lines of multi-reedist John Purcell, and Gonzalez's expressive trumpet playing. According to Dennis, "Any one musician would have changed the whole sound of the band." And he's right – there's a perfect chemistry here.
Also notable here is Gonzalez's fluegelhorn solo. Whereas Art Farmer and others hear the fluegel as a languid, mellow instrument, Dennis understands the horn's more abstract implications. In his solo, Gonzalez invokes a quiet intensity using a breathy attack and an unusually strident tone.
"Enrico" is dedicated not only to young Palos, but also to Italian trumpet giant Enrico Rava, whose approach has greatly influenced Gonzalez.
"Fortuity" is a peaceful tune with a Satie-like ambience written by drummer Richardson and Dallas multi-instrumentalist Roger Boykin. The piece was originally intended for Richardson's musical drama, City of Glass.
Seemingly simple but actually quite complex, "Fortuity" changes chords on every note. All the musicians play delicately, especially Purcell, whose overdubbed bass flute/english horn lines were a test for his breath and embouchure control.
Against Gonzalez' muted trumpet, the reeds make for a mini-orchestra. The concept of "Fortuity" is breathtaking – the harmonies cause the mood of the tune to change on almost every note.
Gonzalez sees "Fortuity" as a paradox of the simple being complex and vice-versa. "When something is complex, it's right there in front of your eyes or ears; it's easy to explain." says Gonzalez. "When something is simple you have to explain it more thoroughly.
The theory of simplicity again shines through in "Stefan". The simplicity is in the three-note pattern played over a significantly more complex harmonic structure. Originally penned for Gonzalez's Ambient Music Ensemble, this tune is a dedication to his infant son, Stefan.
The opening section lends a celestial, church-like atmosphere to the proceedings, with Purcell's synthesizer lines especially appropriate. The section is pensive and uplifting, with a flowing undercurrent provided by Richardson's military snare rolls.
The second section begins with Purcell's bass clarinet providing a buoyant backing for Franklin's high-register bass solo.
Whether solo or in accompaniment, Henry's playing is most inspiring with a powerful glissando style that is articulate, punchy, and very original. In his ensemble playing, Franklin's sliding pitch approach provides plenty of freedom for the other musicians to play within.
Part three of "Stefan" features the voices of the ensemble, all extending the vocal gymnastics John Purcell explores with his group, Third Kind Of Blue. This vocal section consists of a New Orleans street scene. Here, Purcell is a fruits and flesh merchant, W. A. Richardson is a hard-nosed preacher, and Henry Franklin is a civil-rights activist. Gonzalez represents the much ignored Spanish flavor of New Orleans while he ponders the mysteries of life.
The last section ends as it began with the same celestial, simplistic, church-like atmosphere as Purcell and Gonzalez work together to interweave the three-note pattern with the complex harmonic structure beneath; trumpet against synthesizer – trumpet with synthesizer.
Side two begins with the energetic "Hymn For Don Cherry", based on a double-time version of the traditional hymn, "At The Cross". The introduction and recurring theme breaks the melody into one and a half measures of bass and horns and three and a half measures of solo drums, lending an AACM feel to the tune. This part was particularly tricky for the musicians, resulting in several false starts in the studio before the piece finally took off.
All of the solos are notable here. Purcell's Rahsaan Roland Kirk/James Newton-inspired flute solo screams with delight, aided by his great logic and a respect for the changes. Gonzalez's fluegelhorn solo respects not the changes, but the tune's mood and feel. With this freer approach, Dennis sneaks in strange intervals and notes "in between the cracks", while all the time hinting at Cherry's initial bop influence. Franklin's solo swings more mightily than anything else he plays on the album – a substantial statement. On "Hymn For Don Cherry", the ESP between the players is stunning; this ensemble sounds like a full-time BAND!
"Boi Fuba" is a touching Brazilian cowboy song that Gonzalez discovered while taking a Portuguese language class. After receiving a tape copy, Dennis arranged the music for his group. The introduction consists of Gonzalez on pao de churva (rain stick – a shaker), berimbau, congas, bells, and toy chimes – with Purcell on double-tracked bass flute. John's overdubbing adds depth and richness while contrasting the melody and harmony.
This piece, like "Fortuity", is very short. The melody is stated only twice, while the rhythm section only plays it once. There are no solos here; none are needed. As Gonzalez says, "It makes you want more but leaves you satisfied that the statement is complete."
''Deacon John Ray" is Purcell's sole composition for the album. Purcell, who plays alto here, wrote this jaunty tune to emphasize the group's sound – a sound which encompasses hymn-like "songs".
On "Deacon", the contrast between the differing approaches to soloing is at its most evident. John's solos are basically eighth-note lines played inventively within the chord changes, while Gonzalez's solos are double-time and based on abstract modes that only ''hint at'' the changes. Dennis' solo on "Deacon John Ray" is on pocket trumpet – the instrument Gonzalez feels is the most abstract to approach.
Just as in his DAAGNIM releases which preceded this, Dennis Gonzalez demonstrates on this record that he is willing to keep his music fresh and unique. Dennis is blessed with an open mind, an open set of ears, and a humane approach to music that should keep this freshness alive.
Contributor to Jazziz Magazine