Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet: Way Out East
Songlines SGL SA1558-2
"Way Out East"
Wayne Horvitz (piano and electronics)
Peggy Lee (cello)
Ron Miles (trumpet)
Sara Schoenbeck (bassoon)
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Review by Mark Werlin - February 8, 2024
Dazzling music from contemporary chamber ensemble that happens to improvise
The music on “Way Out East”, performed by the Gravitas Quartet of Wayne Horvitz, piano, Peggy Lee, cello, Ron Miles, cornet, and Sara Schoenbeck, bassoon, can be considered jazz-inspired chamber music or contemporary classical-inspired jazz. If you’re coming from a classical music background, you’ll notice the Gravitas Quartet’s chamber music character, especially their use of the orchestral instruments cello and bassoon. If your ear is attuned to jazz improvisation, the trumpet and piano solos will draw you more in that direction. As a listener with one foot in the classical camp and the other in jazz, I find myself hearing the music from both perspectives at once.
“This band is essentially a contemporary chamber ensemble that happens to improvise.” (Wayne Horvitz, from the album liner notes)
Composer-pianist Wayne Horvitz has written for his own groups, participated in John Zorn’s Naked City ensemble, recorded with guitar luminary Bill Frisell, collaborated with his wife, pianist-vocalist Robin Holcomb, and is currently leading a regular big-band gig in his home of Seattle, Washington. His albums for Songlines span a wide range of ensemble formats, but share a similar line of intention. In the opening track of “Way Out East”, “LB”, Horvitz blurs the line between composer and soloist in service of the total group sound. The original DSD recording captures the subtlety and thoughtfulness in his playing.
Through a long presence in the Colorado jazz scene and his special interest in developments in trumpet design, Ron Miles was both an inspiration to his musical collaborators and a sound innovator on his instruments. In his later years, Miles played a custom-built prototype large cornet in the key of G made by Dave Monette in Portland, Oregon. On “Way Out East”, based on the recollections of bandleader-composer Horvitz, Ron Miles was most likely playing a Bb cornet. He brought to his playing a high degree of attentiveness that comes across in this recording; a thorough grasp of Horvitz’ musical style, and a selfless presence. His solos rise up with a voice-like quality that’s difficult to characterize in words but immediately apparent to the listener. With a relatively small recorded output, any album with Ron Miles is worth hearing, and “Way Out East” captures his unique sound in a sympathetic quartet of gifted players. Standouts are Miles’ solos in the title track, and in the melancholy “Berlin 1914”.
Cellist Peggy Lee, a composer and bandleader of small and large ensembles in Vancouver, BC, paints with a wide palette of tones. Her improvisations draw on a background of contemporary art music, and like Ron Miles, she has a deep affection for the Western American influences that flow through Wayne Horvitz’ writing. Effortlessly switching between bowed and plucked lines, Lee covers the supportive role of a bassist when she is not soloing. Bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck has been performing with Horvitz on many projects over the years. Schoenbeck’s supple, plaintive lines in the duet piece “Our Brief Duet” maps the ground the two musicians would explore years later, in the superb recording for Songlines, “Cell Walk”.
In the longest piece on the album, “Berlin 1914”, Horvitz’ skillful writing and arrangement, Sara Schoenbeck’s seamless blend of her bassoon with Peggy Lee’s cello, Lee’s dark-hued solo bowed passages, and Ron Miles’ emotion-laden closing solo encapsulate the mutuality and individuality of these four gifted musicians.
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