By Lee Rice Epstein
Argonautica is yet another fascinating Nate Wooley project that’s been around for years but is only just now being recorded. As described by Firehouse 12: “Argonautica is a sonic analog to the epic poem of the same name. Built in three parts, or chapters, the music makes oblique reference to dodecaphony, ambient tape music, and the driving minimalist rock of Terry Riley.” Argonautica is dedicated to Ron Miles, though it owes a huge debt to Miles Davis and early-to-mid-’70s fusion, with its thick drums, double piano-keyboard middle, and piercing trumpet and cornet.
Wooley’s described the group as a double trio. One trio is Wooley on trumpet, Cory Smythe (a staple of Tyshawn Sorey’s trio and double trio) on piano, and Devin Gray on drums. The second trio is Miles on cornet, with Jozef Dumoulin (who also plays in Bureau of Atomic Tourism) on Fender Rhodes and various electronics, and Rudy Royston on drums. Royston’s presence is also a call back to his playing on Miles’s My Cruel Heart, which Wooley cites as a reference point (and which is criminally out of print, being a Gramavision title). On record, the trios sounds more fluid and cohesive than the description implies, with each player seeming to slide effortlessly from trio to trio.
A single, unbroken track, “Argonautica” opens on Miles unaccompanied, with the band members gradually filling in from the bottom up. Dumoulin brings a hefty dose of funk, and the drummers lock in a classic fusion-y jazz/rock groove. The whole first third is fairly straight, with Miles, Dumoulin, and Wooley alternately soloing and playing the melody. It’s the second third that gets truly expansive, with muted brass improvising, as snippets of the melody bubble up and fade away before they can coalesce. During a piano solo, there’s almost an inner call-and-response, with Smythe’s right and left hand playing off each other dramatically. The doubling motif returns when Wooley and Miles play a long, barely-accompanied duet improvisation. In the last part, Wooley and Miles play a gorgeous unison, Davis-inspired melody, while Dumoulin and Smythe loop a unison counter melody. Twinning the brass line is particularly effective, and Wooley really shows his respect for Miles here, with a melody that blends warmth and atonality, in a way Miles perfected during his career. Gray and Royston lay down fierce, driving beats, ultimately pulling the band apart, leading to a slow denouement of long tones and fading keyboard runs.
Argonautica is a heavy slab and shows yet another side to Wooley. Outside of BOAT, I don’t recall him going quite as deep into jazz/rock territory, but it so comfortably fits his compositional mode. The small duos and trios tucked into a larger piece, the way threads of melody come together and pull apart, all these emerging hallmarks of his style and interests really benefit from the boost of energy injected by Gray, Royston, and especially Dumoulin. Unsurprisingly, this would make a killer BOAT album, and I would love to hear that group also tackle “Argonautica.” It’s a composition that’s definitely ripe for multiple interpretations.