Review by Bill Barton

Night number three at The Seattle Jazz Showcase offered a resounding “yes, it’s really true” response to the oft-cited mention of diversity in Seattle’s jazz and improvised music community.

Thomas Marriott – trumpet & flugelhorn
Mark Taylor – soprano saxophone
Ryan Burns – keyboards
Geoff Harper – bass
Matt Jorgensen – drums

Perhaps Willie Nelson is not the songwriter whose name immediately springs to mind when one thinks about vehicles for creative jazz improvisation. After hearing Thomas Marriott’s Willie Nelson Project that may very well change. Admittedly, when it comes to jazz Nelson is no stranger (or red headed anymore). He was a guest artist on trumpeter Jack Walrath’s Master of Suspense album on Blue Note a few years back for example. At the risk sounding politically incorrect or raising the hackles of purists, he is more of a jazz singer than a pretty sizeable percentage of vocalists who bill themselves that way these days. His phrasing has more in common with Billie Holiday than it does with Harlan Howard, Ernest Tubb or Webb Pierce. And his guitar playing is strongly influenced by Django Reinhardt, whom he has acknowledged on numerous occasions.

Marriott has arranged a number of Nelson’s songs for the Project. In some cases deconstruction might be a more apt term than arrangement. Tonight’s program didn’t feature any of the big hits or ultra-familiar tunes with the exception of the closing “On the Road Again.” Marriott introduced it by saying that they “changed the context” and related it to some people and places they’d seen on their travels. It was flat-out hilarious. Ryan Burns on keys – primarily synthesizer – and Geoff Harper’s electronically altered contra bass offered hovering helicopters, crashing trains and some otherworldly hums, thrums, thuds and crunches as the horns played the melody very, very slowly against a backdrop of busy “free” drums.

The Willie Nelson Project is a group that has a decidedly electronic palette. It’s not a state-of-the-art, spruced-up, sleek, smooth, digital computer age kind of electronics though. We’re talking dirty, low-down analog funk, boys and girls. Burns plays a vintage Fender Rhodes electric piano that looks like it has seen the inside of a few too many luggage compartments, vans and trailers in its lifetime. He also has a Moog synthesizer which appears to be a bit long in the tooth as well. Don’t confuse this with currently fashionable “retro” stuff. The sound is the thing, and the combination with Harper’s pedal-operated gizmo and the likewise pedal-activated sequencer/delay that Marriott uses on his horns is delightfully fuzzy (no, not “warm and fuzzy”) and low-tech. This is not the kind of music you could put together in your basement studio with Pro Tools or Adobe Audition.

Their set opened with “Phases and Stages, Circles and Cycles.” The sound of Marriott’s flugelhorn with the pedal engaged set the stage for a nice electric piano solo.

“You Wouldn’t Have Crossed the Street to Say Goodbye” had a catchy trumpet-soprano unison lead that led to a high-octane trumpet solo. Mark Taylor’s agile bob-and- weave soprano saxophone solo brought a Middle Eastern feeling to Nelson’s outlaw C&W world. Touches of Masada mingled with Turkish music were mental images that flew by; some belly dancing would have fitted in perfectly. A hypnotic bass vamp underpinned the keyboard solo which gradually opened up and out building to a short, intense bass solo spurred on by percolating drum patterns. This was an exciting and colorful performance and Taylor’s solo burned.

“Everywhere I Go” brought things down a notch with muted trumpet and subtle soprano leading the way. There was a subdued yet tensile strength evident here. Where he (or they) went must have included Brazil and maybe Cuba too. Matt Jorgensen’s multi-faceted drumming lifted this piece and made it fly. Marriott switched to the flugelhorn for an absolutely gorgeous solo. His tone, his breath control and most notably his imagination were operating a high level. Ryan Burns took a very cool Rhodes solo that was richly melodic and had a delightfully tongue-in-cheek ending. The ensemble came back in, there was a brief soprano solo, and then a dovetailing soprano-flügel dialogue brought it out. This is a memorable arrangement.

Burns left the stage and the quartet began “I’m Building Heartaches” with a few minutes of wild freeform improv packed with energy. Bass col arco and drums led to a Dolphy-esque quartet segment with trumpet and soprano chasing each other in a game of tag – they were both simultaneously “it.” The theme finally surfaced near the end.

“The Great Divide” was the penultimate tune of the set. Marriott’s arrangement lent this a Tango feel, synth and flügel/electronics dancing, Jorgensen’s mallet work providing an Argentinean undercurrent before he switched to sticks and booted Marriott along in a fleet flugelhorn solo. Some funky, low-down, soulful Rhodes testifying was next. Then the group brought the dynamics way down for a bass solo backed by light synth washes and subtle brushwork. The pacing was exemplary and this was a very fine solo. The original feel returned as the piece ended.

Then they were “On the Road Again.” Keep your ears open for a CD by Thomas Marriott’s Willie Nelson Project set for release early next year.

Chris Stover – trombone
Stuart McDonald – tenor saxophone
Ben Thomas – vibes
Jeff Norwood – bass
Matt Jorgensen – drums

At one point near the end of their set More Zero trombonist-leader Chris Stover noted that “…it wasn’t really planned but it seems we’re playing all of our dark, moody pieces tonight. This is another dark, moody piece.”

There was indeed a brooding, reticent feeling to much of the music they played this evening. The unusual combination of trombone, tenor saxophone and vibes gives the group a unique sonic fingerprint. None of the compositions they played were announced by name.

The first piece had a naggingly insistent, repetitive theme stated by vibes and shadowed by tenor. Ben Thomas never strayed from the base throughout the performance, kind of a one-man Philip Glass Ensemble.

Unaccompanied tenor sax opened the second composition. Like all of the selections it had an interesting structure: solo, ensemble, solo again, then – and only then – establishing a tempo and rhythmic underpinning with Thomas switching from two mallets to four for a thicker texture and Jorgensen coming down hard on two and four. There was a fine tenor solo and then an absolutely superb trombone solo. Stover seems to be out of the Roswell Rudd to Ray Anderson lineage when it comes to his phrasing and ideas but possesses the tonal clarity and fleet agility of J. J. Johnson and his followers. He’s a thoughtful and original improviser. Another parallel is Jimmy Knepper who is similarly cliché free. A bass vamp led to the ending which had a totally different theme and rhythm (at first it seemed as if they had segued to the next tune.)

The next piece had a lovely portion featuring vibes and bass backed by brushes that had a Nordic ECM-ish quality to it, as did many segments of More Zero’s set.

Next, a solo bass intro led into the asymmetric four-note bass vamp that anchored this one throughout. Norwood was joined first by vibes, then brushes on drums, then the full ensemble. This was a particularly melancholy, deep woods at midnight kind of mood.

There was an edgy, relatively aggressive tenor solo in the next segment and a very cogent if brief vibes feature.

A piece described by Stover as “…new, we’ve only played it a couple times in front of people” had a fast pulse from Jorgensen with brushes and a slow moving theme from the horns. The trombone solo was brilliant, analogous perhaps to Cubist painting in three dimensions.

Stover’s “This is another dark, moody piece.” introduction led to the mesmerizing bass vamp and sonorous mallets on toms groove that was a little reminiscent of some of Eberhard Weber’s work filtered through a few years of drum ‘n’ bass and trance influences. There was an extremely introspective bass solo with vibes comping and a trombone solo that included some very low notes.

The closing composition was a bit brighter than the ones that preceded it. Solo four-mallet vibes set the tempo and retained the same pattern for quite some time. There was a long buildup with spare horn parts and bass col arco. As things heated up Norwoood switched to pizzicato and Thomas changed to two mallets. There was a hot tenor solo with trombone interjections that then became a dialogue and finally a collective improvisation. Thomas switched back to four mallets after the horn duo, playing the same pattern the piece began with but with a totally different timbre, as two of the mallets were reversed, playing the bars with the stick ends, a technique that I don’t recall ever seeing any other vibraphonist employ in concert. The results had a bright, edgy sound that really pushed the ensemble. More Zero is definitely “thinking person’s jazz” with intellectual depth and its own sound and style.