Mark Nodwell: Nemesis
Songlines SGL SA1539-2
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Review by Mark Werlin - September 8, 2023
Historically, American jazz scenes coalesced within tightly-bounded geographical settings. Think of the clubs on 52nd Street in NYC in the 1940s, where bebop was incubated. In Los Angeles, the Central Avenue clubs, and a handful of venues in Hollywood and the beach cities played a similar part in nurturing West Coast cool and bop. New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit: each city had a jazz center that attracted the region’s best players, composers and arrangers.
Perhaps less well-known is that jazz has enjoyed a long-time presence in Colorado. From Denver’s storied Five Points district jazz clubs in the 1930s to the classrooms and rehearsal spaces of universities in Denver, Boulder, and Ft. Collins, jazz has been flourishing in the Rocky Mountain State for the better part of a century. Guitarist Bill Frisell, pianists Dave Grusin and Don Grusin, and trumpet player Ron Miles are only a few of the Colorado-based jazz players who bring the character of the region, a mix of traditional jazz, openness to experimentation, and Western Americana folk idiom, into their music.
When Canadian saxophonist Mark Nodwell first came to study music at Naropa University in Boulder with jazz pianist Art Lande, he encountered a future jazz star, Ron Miles. Miles would soon distinguish himself as an accomplished trumpet soloist, with several releases on Gramavision as a leader, and as a sideman on Bill Frisell’s albums for Nonesuch. Prior to teaching at Naropa, Art Lande had been a mainstay in the San Francisco Bay Area jazz scene of the 1970s and early 1980s; his albums with the group Rubisa Patrol, and trios with Gary Peacock and with Paul McCandless on ECM are time capsules of that period.
After chronic illness impacted Nodwell’s ability to play saxophone, he turned his attention to writing the music that appears on the Songlines album “Nemesis”. To perform and record the pieces, he assembled local players, including his teacher Art Lande, and a premier rhythm section from New York, Drew Gress on bass, and Tom Rainey, drums. Under Nodwell’s supervision, the band executed his intricate charts with what seems like effortless precision.
Songlines Recordings producer-owner Tony Reif uses the term “creative chamber jazz” to describe many of the albums Songlines releases. “Nemesis” is exemplary of that description. The soloing is in line with developments in jazz from bebop going forward; the compositions incorporate techniques of post-bop, such as harmonic ambiguity; and the vibe of the set overall has a chamber music character.
For composer Nodwell, the special qualities of Ron Miles’ trumpet playing, his purity of tone, lyricism and openness to unusual forms, the West Coast post-bop phrases that Art Lande artfully weaves into his solos, Khabu Doug Young’s palette of expressive guitar timbres, the harmonic inventiveness and rich bass tone of Drew Gress, and the rhythmic drive and subtlety of Tom Rainey provided the colors to paint this masterful canvas. Flexibility of forces is a characteristic of creative chamber jazz: six of the nine pieces employ the entire ensemble; the other three are duet settings.
The moody solo piano introduction of the title suite “Nemesis” establishes an uncertain, searching mood. As the rest of the ensemble joins, the distinctive quality of a trumpet-and-guitar front line emerges. The players stretch out, with ensemble passages marking the intervals between solos. Ron Miles’ cleanly articulated phrases are tinged with yearning, and Khabu’s thoughtful, incisive lines draw the piece outward into unexpected territory. A contrapuntal exchange between trumpet and guitar steers the ensemble to the conclusion. One of the duet pieces, “Pitfall”, features bassist Gress in subtle interplay with Lande, and provides the audiophile listener with a less crowded perspective of the venue’s soundstage. With the bass center and the piano set towards the listener’s right, you can hear the piano’s clean attacks and gentle decays, the pluck and thrum of the bass strings, all captured in the smooth extension and warmth of analogue tape.
“Fleet”, a piece for the full ensemble, heats up ingredients of classical-inspired West Coast cool with the post-bop fiery energy of Blue Note’s adventurous sessions. Ron Miles’ solo breaks out of the genre boundaries into lyrical flight. In the closing “Dreamtime”, a duet for trumpet and guitar, Miles’ exquisitely poignant phrases float over Young’s swelling chords. Guided by, but not confined in the frame of Nodwell’s compositions, the musicians honor their antecedents while venturing into new territory.
“Nemesis”, more than 20 years on, stands as a milestone accomplishment in the life of composer Mark Nodwell, and a testament to the irreplaceable musicianship and presence of Ron Miles, who died in 2022 at age 58. As an early demonstration of creative chamber jazz on SACD, and a fruitful collaboration of West Coast and East Cost musicians in the creative laboratory of the Colorado music scene, it was, and remains, a groundbreaking work.
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