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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Nate Wooley - Columbia Icefield (Northern Spy, 2019) ****

By Keith Prosk

Nate Wooley (trumpet, effects) recruits Mary Halvorson (electric guitar), Susan Alcorn (pedal steel guitar), and Ryan Sawyer (drums, voice) for three original compositions spanning 53 minutes on Columbia Icefield. Halvorson and Wooley have collaborated with some frequency, perhaps most famously on Crackleknob with Reuben Radding and in various settings with Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Centric Orchestra and its alumni. Sawyer recorded with Wooley on Seven Storey Mountain III & IV and Seven Storey Mountain V. And Alcorn recorded with Halvorson on Away With You. So there’s some significant familiarity among this new quartet, and its communicative possibilities are perhaps further nurtured by Wooley composing these pieces with these musicians in mind.

Wooley grew up near the mouth of the Columbia River yet only recently visited its headwaters, the glacial landscape from which this recording borrows its name, and the extreme environment inspired Wooley “to express what is most natural and most foreign to us simultaneously,” manifested by a theme of dualism/counterpoint threaded through each piece. If you take the stream’s path to its origin, the kinetic water becomes static glaciers, fertile valleys transition to scablands, relicts of an ancient hellscape flooded by fiery basalt succumb to ice, the squandered Hanford site leads to the pristine Canadian Rockies, and the dams, levees, plants, and mills that currently yoke the river lie by evidence of the biblical Missoula floods. The dualism in the story of the watershed is mimicked in the music by the frequent counterpoint of Alcorn and Halvorson’s dueling guitars, Wooley’s textural fermatas soaring over the discrete notes of the others, Wooley’s trumpet transforming from a mellow, dark, soft, reflective tone to a breathy bluster almost instantaneously, and the relatively tight compositions providing seemingly small windows for improvisatory outbursts. Even the titling reflects the theme, with “Lionel Trilling” named after the literary critic because Wooley thought it was beautiful that he could love and hate someone so much, or “With Condolences” being a dryly humorous apology for butchering John Berryman’s words and then making Sawyer vocalize those butchered words (rather than the common “funereal” or “tenebrous” interpretations, despite it being the fastest and free-est track). The entire experience feels like a continuous push and pull, ebb and flow, wax and wane, call and response, an exploration of counterpoint.

This kind of equilibrium of conflict frequently feels like it’s about to boil over, but the playing is relatively timid until Halvorson and Alcorn’s fiery solos in “Seven In The Woods” or Sawyer’s fills in “With Condolences.” Along with these solos, other individual highlights include Sawyer’s brushwork complimented by effects like disintegrating tape from Wooley on “Seven In The Woods” and Wooley sounding like a hot air balloon burner on “Lionel Trilling.” The progressive structure and guitarwork on “Lionel Trilling” reminds me of the Chicago-Louisville strain of “post rock,” which I enjoy and also hear in Wooley’s buddy’s band, Marker. I’m partial to the headier, quieter aspects of Wooley and a part of me wishes the compositions allowed the players more freedom to improvise with each other (particularly Alcorn and Halvorson), but Wooley doesn’t disappoint.

Columbia Icefield is available digitally and on CD.