Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review: Ghosts of the Sun - Bill McHenry

I’ve been curious about tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry’s playing for a while.  He recently released a recording of new music, La Peur Du Vide, but his previous recording, Ghosts of the Sun, received a lot of acclaim (see the end of this review), so I thought I would use this as my introduction to McHenry’s work.

The recording starts out with the slow, melancholy “Ms. Polley,” kind of a jazzy, low-key version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Music of the Night.”  McHenry’s tone on the tenor saxophone is solid and workmanlike—clear, rounded, and slightly dry.  Ben Monder’s guitar provides a spacy orchestra in the background behind McHenry’s playing, along with thoughtful playing from the late drummer Paul Motian and bassist Reid Anderson.  Anderson then takes the spotlight with a gentle, lyrical solo, Motian and Monder continuing their more-than-just background playing.  McHenry’s following solo is mainly a smattering of quiet runs without much direction.  McHenry and Monder play the melancholy melody in unison to the end.  This cut is pretty and contemplative, but ultimately comes off as a bit listless.

“La Fuerza” starts off a bit like a paso doble, the soundtrack to a bullfight.  The rhythm players lay down a nice groove, and McHenry produces some interesting tongueing effects in his solo, but he doesn’t generate much with the opportunity he’s given.  Anderson plays a brief solo with Motian’s accompaniment.  “Anti Heroes” has a fine, strong melody, almost a march.  Monder provides an imaginative, excellent narrative in his solo, a little lesson in how to improvise. McHenry finally stretches out a bit with a flowing, cohesive solo, continuing the self-assured flavor of the song.  The title tune is a lower mid-tempo, impressionistic piece.  In his solo, McHenry uses his saxophone like a paintbrush, dabbing little bits of melody here and there.  Monder noodles around with a reverb-y solo, somewhat in duet with Anderson.  There is a lot of subtle interplay between Monder, Anderson, and Motian here.  This is music evocative of desert landscapes. 

“William (Drums)” is a short piece that is basically a mid-tempo Motian drum solo, but the other quartet members come in near the end to fade out the cut.  “Little One” is a mid-tempo song, sounding like a sort of jazzy version of a Burt Bacharach tune, with McHenry singing the melody on his sax.  McHenry and Monder improvise a low-key duet, staying close to the melody of the tune, before closing out the brief cut.  “William (III)” has a halting, fragmented melody without any clear meter.  McHenry plays a meticulous, composed-sounding solo.  Monder then takes over with a wild and highly distorted solo. 

“Lost Song” begins as a slow duet between McHenry and Monder, and it develops into a slowly strolling ballad with the other quartet members joining in.  McHenry plays a slow, ruminating solo.  Then Anderson takes over with a more engaging solo, Monder playing arpeggios behind him.  Monder then provides a nice interlude, strumming some sustained, distorted chords.  The players close with the tune’s pretty melody.  The recording ends with “Roses (II).”  McHenry begins the tune with some of his more intense and engaged playing, employing some interesting runs, altissimo swoops, and his unusual tongueing technique.  The tune itself is a disjointed, out-of-time collection of phrases, closing out the recording on a somewhat unsettling note.

Ghosts of the Sun is a very low-key, minimalist affair.  To really appreciate it requires a fair amount of concentration by the listener; you have to come to this music as much as it comes to you.  (I’ll confess I had a much more positive attitude toward this recording after I listened to it for a second time.)  Also, the musicians are much more interested in subtly blending and fitting into each piece than in making personal statements--this is reflected in the brevity of the solos and the pieces themselves—though the improvisational excellence of these players can’t help but shine through.  McHenry is particularly self-effacing in his playing.  He doesn’t seem to approach the saxophone as a saxophone, choosing not to take advantage of the instrument’s natural tonal and intervallic strengths.  (In this regard, I agree with a comment in a review by Raul D’Gama Rose in All About Jazz: “it seems to be a matter of coincidence that he [McHenry] is a tenor saxophonist.  He might just as well have been a trumpeter, a pianist or even a violinist.")  So, from a jazz saxophonist’s point of view, this recording is fairly unnourishing.  Overall, Ghosts of the Sun provides fine music, but will probably be more appealing to those who gravitate toward minimalism and desert landscapes.  As a more meat-and-potatoes jazz listener, this recording left me somewhat cold. 

Part of the “acclaim” of Ghosts of the Sun includes the fact that it landed on A Blog Supreme’s list of ten best jazz recordings of2011.  In the entry for this recording, there’s also a link to listen to the cut, “La Fuerza.”  This will help you decide if Ghosts of the Sun is likely to suit your tastes. 

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