from the February 2010 issue of Downbeat Magazine
Tom Varner – Heaven And Hell
It’s usually a good idea to avoid programmatic interpretations of music. The ear of the beholder can be made of tin in detecting intended meanings, assuming there are any. But when a work is as powerfully rooted in a cultural and political moment as Heaven And Hell, French hornist Tom Varner’s extended piece for tentet, it’s difficult not to assume the images you see in your mind’s eye and the emotions you feel are ones the artist is seeing and feeling as well.
Heaven And Hell was largely inspired by 9/11. Varner witnessed the attacks and their aftermath as a New Yorker. Now based in Seattle, where he and a predominately local cast recorded the album (his first in eight years), he is still coming to terms with the tragedy. A mournful uncertainty defines the opening “Overview,” with its constrained melody and irregular ensemble patterns. As the music builds to the operatic, Greek chorus-like effects and eerie descending tones of “Structure Down,” it draws hope from happier events in Varner’s life, notably the adoption of his Vietnamese son and starting a new life in Seattle. But making stirring use of grouped and clustered horns and sparing use of drums, Varner is nagged by unresolved questions.
For all its darkness, Heaven And Hell unfolds with the easygoing, open clarity that is a hallmark of his music, striking a rewarding balance between bold modern jazz harmonies and austere modern classical voicings. Connected by brief pensive interludes, the longer individual compositions unfold deliberately. But there’s no lack of peak moments, as witness the lively solos over Phil Sparks’ limber walking bass on “Queen Tai” by the brilliant East Coast trumpeter Russ Johnson, the Konitzian altoist Mark Taylor and the virtuosic Varner.
More than ever, Varner’s warmly expansive but tough-edged playing rescues the French horn from the “miscellaneous” instrument category. The voice of conscience on Heaven And Hell, he also bestows its greatest pleasures.